Women's History Month: Honoring the Life and Legacy of Lillian Bernice Varnado Watkins
Updated: Aug 17
By: Donald V. Watkins ©Copyrighted and Published on March 8, 2023
Lillian Bernice Varnado Watkins, the matriarch of the Watkins family, was the epitome of motherhood, love for humanity, respect for mankind, dignity, and the acceptance of personal responsibility for one's actions. She and my father, Levi Watkins, Sr., were my real-life heroes. Together, they formed the yardstick by which I have measured the character and class of everyone I have met in life.
I am the fifth of six Watkins children. Lillian and Levi instilled in each of their children a burning desire to elevate humanity and make a positive difference in the world. They taught us to believe in each other and in the triumph of the human spirit. To them, unconditional love for mankind was the universal food of life, and all things were possible through God’s grace.
Lillian was the granddaughter of a beautiful “mulatto” girl in Mississippi named Olivia Williamson, who was born on April 20, 1847. Olivia met and fell in love with William Carmichael, who was born on December 5, 1838. William was one of five sons of Dougald Carmichael and his wife Katheryn. The Carmichaels, who were white, migrated from Scotland to America in the early 1800s.
Olivia and William married in Crawford Station, Mississippi, on March 25, 1865 – about two weeks before General Robert E. Lee surrendered his 28,000 confederate troops to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox. This young interracial couple began a family of twelve children. One of these children was Lillian’s mother, Oda Etta Carmichael, who was born on January 12, 1890.
As a young adult, Etta met an astonishing young minister named Willie L. Varnado, whom she married on February 21, 1912. Etta became a mother to his young daughter (Pearl), who was born during Willie Varnado’s marriage to his first wife. Etta and Willie also became the parents of four children of their own. One of those children was my mother Lillian, who was born on March 13, 1917.
Lillian’s childhood years were spent in Canton with her siblings. Later, the family moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where Reverend Varnado secured a bigger and more prestigious ministry. It was there that Lillian and her siblings finished high school at the laboratory school associated with Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. Lillian and her siblings went on to receive their college educations at either Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, or Jackson State University.
All five of the Varnado children enjoyed highly successful careers in education, government, and business. All of them cherished and practiced the highest moral, ethical and professional standards, which they passed down to their children.
In 1939, Lillian met and fell in love with Levi Watkins, Sr., while teaching at Burt High School in Clarksville, Tennessee. Levi was also a teacher at the high school. The couple married in 1940 and had six children.
Levi and Lillian moved to Parsons, Kansas, where Levi became the principal of Douglas Junior High School for “colored” students and Lillian went about the business of raising the Watkins children. All of their children, except for my younger brother James, were born in Parsons.
In 1949, Levi and Lillian moved our family to Montgomery, Alabama, where Levi took a job as the administrative assistant to the president at Alabama State College for Negroes (“ASC”). Lillian worked hard to make our tiny home a warm and pleasant place to live. Our family struggled financially, but thrived in other ways as Lillian molded her six children on the path to becoming successful adults. She learned quickly how to stretch a dollar, create delicious inexpensive meals, make our clothes, and teach us from second-hand books.
In 1954, Levi and Lillian moved our family to Memphis, Tennessee, where Levi became the founder and president of S.A. Owen Junior College. Through much sacrifice and perseverance by Levi, Lillian and their children, Levi able to get this start-up junior college accredited in four years. He was also able to quietly assemble a racially integrated faculty and staff for the college’s all-black student body in a city where racial segregation was strictly enforced.
In 1959, Levi and Lillian moved our family back to Montgomery where Levi worked first as a veteran affairs administrator and later as the business manager at ASC. The family lived in a small three-bedroom home on Faculty Circle. Lillian was once again determined to make this home comfortable and life as easy as possible for her husband and children.
When the longtime president of ASC fell ill, Levi was offered the permanent position and became the next ASC president in 1962. He served as president for 19 years. Again, Levi took an unaccredited and neglected college for “Negroes” to a fully accredited status in record time. Next, he elevated ASC from a small segregated teachers college to the major, racially integrated, doctoral degree granting university known today as Alabama State University (“ASU”).
The ASU years were very difficult for Lillian and Levi. There was professional jealous and hatred from fellow ASU colleagues, a full-blown civil rights movement in Montgomery, student unrest on campus, friendships lost, life-threatening situations, and the never-ending battle for equitable funding for ASU.
Lillian gave Levi all of her love and strength, while at the same time quietly raising six children. Her faith and belief in God carried the family through these dark and difficult days. Lillian was Levi’s rock, his sounding board, a shoulder upon which to lean, and he loved her so. For his entire presidency, Lillian was solidly behind Levi, quietly being his biggest cheerleader.
As was the case with Kathryn and Dougald Carmichael, Olivia and William Carmichael, and Etta and Willie Varnado, Lillian and Levi Watkins stressed educational excellence and leadership with courage as core family values. Lillian and Levi sent all six of their children to college, and saw each of them earn postgraduate degrees. Four of the six children earned terminal degrees in their respective fields of study.
My oldest sister Marie has a PhD in mathematics from the University of California at Berkley. Her pioneering mathematical algorithms and inventions for Bell Laboratories and Lucent Technologies paved the way for the modern era of telecommunications and the electronic transmission of data around the world. My sister Pearl, who died in 2009, became a nationally known concert pianist and popular music teacher. My brother Levi, Jr., who died in 2015, became a world-renowned heart surgeon who co-developed the implantable cardioverter defibrillator keeps more than 3 million hearts worldwide beating in a regular rhythm. My sister Doristine became a highly successful educator and school principal. My brother James became a well-respected surgeon/wound care physician in Charlotte. I became a lawyer, banker, entrepreneur, and online journalist.
During Women's History Month, my surviving siblings and I have chosen to pay a tribute the family history and legacy of Lillian and Levi Watkins. Both of them are in Heaven now.
We salute them during this special month set aside for Lillian's amazing achievements.
God could not have given us greater parents. What Lillian and Levi accomplished in their lifetime with so few resources and so many odds stacked against them was simply amazing.
As their surviving children, we did not realize the magnitude of their personal history and legacy until we looked back at their lives after Lillian departed for Heaven in 2013. All of it was nothing short of a miracle.
Throughout the course of life, one document has guided us on our journey. It means more to us than anything else in our possession. It is titled, “Certificate of Birth”, and it lists Lillian and Levi Watkins as our parents. There are only six of these certificates in the world and I hold one of them. No matter where I go or what I do in life, I will always be Lillian and Levi Watkins’ ambassador to the larger world, and I will always strive to represent them well.