By Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on July 21, 2019
During our highly publicized trials and tribulations over the past few years, the world has learned one important thing about the men in the Watkins family – we never surrender our manhood to anybody for any reason. We would rather die on our feet fighting for truth and justice than live on our knees in a demeaning and permanent state of subservience.
For five generations in America, Watkins men have faced a vast array of daunting challenges in life and we overcame them all. We have always known that a man who will not fight for his family and himself, will not fight for others.
Granddaddy Adam Watkins
My lessons on manhood came early. My grandfather, Adam Watkins, taught me what he imparted to his sons – “God made you a man, so be a man.”
Adam Watkins, who lived with his wife Sallie in Clarksville, Tennessee in the 1950s, gave me my first summer job – a plumber’s apprentice -- and my first paychecks. He ran the biggest plumbing company in town; he had mostly white customers; and he lived on Main Street. Adam Watkins taught me that the ability to render good, high-quality business services transcended race.
I also learned that when Adam Watkins Plumbing Company answered service calls on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, or at night, we could charge double our customary rate for the same services. Customers would be so happy to see us, so happy to have the toilets unstopped and their plumbing fixed, that they would not argue about the fees charged for services rendered.
In 1962, I also watched the Tennessee Democratic gubernatorial candidate Frank Clement come to granddaddy Watkins’ home and request his political support at a time when only a small number of blacks in the state had the courage to register and vote in Tennessee elections prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Granddaddy Watkins, who was born in 1890, feared no man and was respected by all men.
Dr. Levi Watkins, Sr.
Dr. Levi Watkins, Sr., was the oldest of Adam Watkins’ five sons and two daughters. He was also my father. He was the strongest and smartest man I have ever known.
When my father was a child, he was not allowed to attend the “white” school in his small Kentucky community. He walked alone to the “colored” school in Cadiz, which was six miles away. Father passed the local “white” school twice each day. Sometimes, he was wet and cold. And sometimes, his feet were numb from walking in the snow and sleet of winter. To attend school, my father had no choice. He grew to hate racism, but not the innocent children in the “white” school he passed each day. Father just wanted equal opportunity for all men and women.
Granddaddy Adam Watkins and grandmother Sallie Watkins taught my father how to be morally strong, how to be fair, and how to be concerned about the plight of African-Americans in the segregated South. They also taught my father how to love the people who mistreated blacks in those difficult times.
Dr. Levi Watkins served as president of Alabama State University from 1962 to 1981. He took a small, neglected, all-black state college in Montgomery, Alabama from an unaccredited status in 1962 to full accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools in 1966. It was the second time my father had accomplished this feat in a four-year period. The first time occurred in the 1950s when father served as president of Owen Junior College in Memphis, Tennessee.
My father was my best friend, my spiritual leader, my role model and my hero. He taught me how to be a strong man, how to respect women, how to deal effectively with bullies and bigots, and how to stand up for what is right, even when I had to stand by myself.
As was the case with my granddaddy Adam Watkins, my father groomed each one of his three daughters and three sons to become loving and caring community leaders. He loved to inspire, motivate and support the younger generations. To him, education was the surest pathway to a better life.
My father never stressed the accumulation of material things. Instead, he stressed a healthy respect for humanity and a mastery of knowledge, skills and abilities. To father, service to humanity was the cornerstone of greatness. Even then, it must be rendered with compassion, kindness, humility, and a thoughtful consideration of the circumstances of others.
Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr.
On May 29, 1966, The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee) published an article announcing the acceptance of the “first Negro ever accepted by Vanderbilt University’s school of medicine.”
His name was Levi Watkins, Jr. He was my older brother.
Even though Levi was accepted at other prestigious medical schools around the nation, he was denied admission to The University of Alabama’s medical school in Birmingham in 1966.
Levi’s experience at Vanderbilt was challenging. While he mastered the academic course of study with ease, Levi caught pure hell from fellow students who resented his presence at the medical school. Levi’s worst experience came when he exited his dormitory one day, and someone emptied a full can of garbage on him from a second-floor window. He returned to his room, quickly cleaned himself up, and hurried to class. Nothing these students did to Levi ever broke his spirit or focus on graduating with honor.
After graduation, Levi began his medical residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital. There, he became chief resident of cardiac surgery, acting as the first African American chief resident at the university. Levi eventually would become a world-famous heart surgeon and associate dean at Johns Hopkins Medical School.
In 1975, Levi continued the pioneering medical research on the implantable defibrillator that had been started by Drs. Michel Mirowski, Morton Mower, and William Staewen. In February 1980, Levi implanted the first defibrillator at a time when many white Johns Hopkins University Hospital cardiac patients did not want a black heart surgeon, who had been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine, to perform life-saving surgery on them. Levi overlooked their bigotry, loved them as human beings, and saved their lives anyway.
Today, more than 3 million people worldwide are walking around with implantable defibrillators that were developed by the pioneering medical research of Drs. Michel Mirowski, Morton Mower, William Staewen, and Levi Watkins, Jr. The device, which detects arrhythmia in the heart and emits an electric charge to correct it, prevents sudden death from an irregular heartbeat.
My Five Children
I have four sons and one daughter. All of my sons are real men. They work very hard at serving humanity and taking care of their families. My daughter is just as smart and strong as my sons. All of my children have backbones of steel.
My sons have never surrendered their manhood to anybody and will never do so. Donald, Jr., demonstrated this core Watkins family value just last week.
On Wednesday, Birmingham News reporter/columnist Kyle Whitmire wrote an article insinuating that I did not love Donald, Jr., because I did not plead guilty to save him from prosecution in our recently concluded criminal case. Donald, Jr., quickly body-slammed Whitmire for this warped and twisted viewpoint. Whitmire obviously did not know anything about the Watkins family values when he made his ignorant statement.
The lessons that were taught to me by Adam Watkins, Levi Watkins, Sr., and Levi Watkins, Jr., have been passed down to Donald, Jr., and the younger members of our family. In the Watkins family, we fear no man or woman and we work every day to earn the respect of all men and women.
When we do get down on our knees, it is to give thanks to God for the blessings that have been bestowed upon us. Because we bow down to God, he raises us up and shields us from harm caused by misguided men and women.
PHOTO: Adam and Sallie Watkins (circa 1962), my paternal grandparents.