Charlotte Watkins, pioneer of PTA integration, dead at 94

Charlotte Watkins was known as a voice for justice in education and health care in Mecklenburg County.
Charlotte Watkins was known as a voice for justice in education and health care in Mecklenburg County.

Charlotte Watkins, who integrated the Mecklenburg County and North Carolina PTAs in the 1960s, died Thursday in Wilmington at 94.

For decades, she and her husband, the late pediatrician Carlton Watkins, were known as a force for fairness in education and health care.

“It’s just amazing that one person did the things she did, at a time when women weren’t necessarily doing such things,” said longtime friend Carol Wilson, an attorney for Carolinas HealthCare System. “She was a powerhouse in her own right, but together they were amazing.”

Charlotte Watkins, a nurse, met her husband at Children’s Hospital in St. Louis. They moved to Charlotte in 1945, where he opened the city’s first desegregated pediatrics office.

Both black and white parents want their children to have a good education, a good family life and they want their children to thrive and succeed.

Charlotte Watkins in 2004

She got involved with the PTA at a time when schools and their parent organizations were segregated. When Charlotte Watkins led the white Charlotte-Mecklenburg PTA Council and Sarah Stevenson led the Mecklenburg County Council of Colored Parents and Teachers, they united in 1964 to create the first racially mixed PTA branch in North Carolina.

“She has always stood up for what she feels is right, and she knows how to reach people,” Stevenson, who was later elected to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, said of Watkins in 2004.

Watkins was also elected president of the white state PTA and worked with the black state president to unify those groups as well. She worked for school desegregation efforts on a national level. In 1969, President Richard Nixon named her to his Cabinet Committee on Education and Desegregation.

Meanwhile, Carlton Watkins served on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board during court-ordered desegregation in the early 1970s.

“It was hard,” Charlotte Watkins told the Observer in 2004, when the YWCA of the Central Carolinas named her their Woman of Achievement. “We had to move out of our home once because of bomb threats.”

The couple adopted four children – Lloyd, Carlton, Melissa and Lou – and were known for making many others feel like family.

“Everybody that she knew became important to her, and she left a piece of herself with everyone,” said her daughter-in-law Sue Watkins.

Carlton Watkins died in 2000.

In her later years, Charlotte Watkins focused her energy on her family and her friends at the Carriage Club retirement community and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte, which created a community service award in her name in 2010.

Sue Watkins and Wilson said Charlotte Watkins was aware of ongoing controversy over race relations and school resegregation, but seldom said anything negative. “She was always hopeful,” her daughter-in-law said.

Watkins suffered from blockages of her abdominal arteries. She moved to assisted living in Wilmington in December and went into hospice care in July. A memorial service will be Sept. 26 at the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Researcher Maria David contributed.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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