On Jan. 9, 2023, Richmond County lost a true historical figure, a trailblazer, a local hero, an advocate for civil rights, a civic leader, an educator, an avid community supporter, a friend, and a long list of other notable titles and roles to so many.
James Clyde “J.C.” Watkins, just shy of celebrating his 101st birthday on March 21st, passed away at Richmond County Hospice Haven, and left the entire Richmond County community and well beyond in mourning, but also in remembrance and celebration of his historic life and the multitude of everlasting contributions he made in a variety of aspects and capacities throughout his life.
Some of his most notable accomplishments include being the first-ever African American elected to the Rockingham City Council, the second elected to the Richmond County Board of Commission, first-ever principal of the county’s first integrated school, and he was the oldest living member of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity.
A child of the Great Depression, Watkins grew up on a tenant farm in the Beaver Dam community. He attended the segregated Lincoln School and then Rockingham Colored School. After graduating high school in 1939, he was awarded a scholarship to attend Shaw College, now Shaw University, where he pledged to the Iota Chapter of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity in 1940.
He began his career as an educator in 1943 as the youngest male teacher during the 1943-1944 school year at the former Rockingham Negro High School, which was later renamed to Leak Street School. Not only did his iconic career as an educator and leader in Richmond County begin there, but he also met the love of his life, the late Ruth Perry Watkins, whose French and Social Studies classroom was next door. Between the class change conversations and a ride home after work, love blossomed between the two and resulted in their nuptials in August of 1946 at Calvary Baptist Church in Plainfield, New Jersey.
A huge proponent for both educating others and continuing his own education, Watkins earned a master’s degree from Columbia University and an educational specialist degree from Appalachian State University. Watkins worked his way up in Richmond County Schools, becoming a principal and later assistant superintendent before his retirement from the school system with 43 years in 1984.
In 1973, Watkins made history when he was elected as the first black to serve on the Rockingham City Council. He served as a councilman until 1990, at which time he was elected to serve on the Richmond County Board of Commission, which he served on until 2008. As a councilman, Watkins was instrumental in getting a $10 million grant to improve the infrastructure of the black communities that had long been neglected. During his tenure as a county commissioner, he played an integral role in the growth of Richmond County’s industrial parks, with industries such as Duke Energy, Purdue and Big Rock Sports coming to the county during his service.
In addition to the racial barriers he dismantled in public education and local government, Watkins was also the first African American member of Rockingham Rotary in 1975. He maintained his commitment to the club and truly lived the motto of service above self.
On Oct. 29, 2019, the Leak Street Cultural Center was named in honor of J.C. and Ruth Watkins for their lifetime of dedication to the betterment of the community.
On June 5, 2021, Watkins was honored for 81 years of service and dedication to the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity surrounded by brothers, family and friends, and local community members who celebrated his tremendous legacy.
J.C. and his late wife, Ruth, were dedicated members of Mount Zion Church of Christ.
Join us today in celebrating, honoring, and remembering the historic life of this local legend for the indelible positive impact he made in public education, local government, Black History, and in Richmond County!
Editor’s Note: Visit Richmond County is highlighting prominent local African Americans each day in February in honor of Black History Month.