Harlem, in the early '20s. America's premiere black community. It was the Harlem of the great migration, the destination of thousands of poor, yet hopeful blacks who trekked from the South. It was also the home of the black intelligentsia who created the greatest period of black artistic activity to date, the Harlem Renaissance.
It was the Harlem of the famed nightclubs, an exotic playground for white celebrities, the Harlem of heroes, nationalist Marcus Garvey, singer Florence Mills and Joe Louis.
During this period of international recognition of this uptown neighborhood of New York City, the masses of blacks lived grandly in large mansions, with servants and wine cellars, and celebrity-studded balls right in their living rooms.
Fifty years later, Barbara and Grace Watson, who lived at the vortex of that special time, continue lives of prominence, hallmarked by a devotion to the commonweal. Grace Watson is a program specialist of the Office of Education, while Barbara Watson is again an Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs, a job she was edged out of a couple of years ago in a partisan controversy that set off cries of racism and sexism against the Ford administration. (Though not from Barbara Watson; she considered such infighting unseemly.)
Their father, John S. Watson, was one of the first elected black judges in the country, served on the bench for 20 years, and was sought-after adviser and host by city officials, foreign vistors and the plain folk of Harlem. In the day of a closed society, the Watsons lived openly. From the time they were children, the Watson sisters sat with people of power and ideas.
In the evenings Grace and Barbara Watson could slip down from their own bedrooms, rooms with 12-foot ceilings, a fireplace and separate dressing rooms, and watch the [v. ORD ILLEGIBLE] escort some notable into the [WORD ILLEGIBLE]
One one occasion, both women remember vividly. Madame Kripalani, a close associate of Gandhi, asked Judge Watson to arrange a meeting with some of the leading black writers. "She came to the house and met Langston Hughes, Alain Locke and Countee Cullen. And as children we were never excluded from those dinners," said Barbara Watson.
"It almost sounds like we are lying when we tell people about our parents' friends, their lifestyles and the people we knew as children. People become very skeptical, but that's how it was," explained Grace Watson. But it became routine for them to find Mary McLeod Bethune, the educator and presidential advisor, sitting at the kitchen table with their mother, Violet Lopez Watson, talking about a women's group that became the National Council of Negro Women. Or having the granddaughter of Wagner encourage music lessons, or having violin lessons from Dean Dixon, the black conductor who earned his fame in Europe.
Today their lives in Washington are a continum of the same ecumenical approach of their parents. Their careers, interests and friends are international. They work and relax with the same strata of their childhood, even with some of the same people.
Barbara Watson was one of five speakers at a symposium in Singapore on "The United States at 200," along with Buckminster Fuller.
Physically the Watsons are imposing: They are tall, broadly-built, with theatrically deep, snappy voices. Both are also very much the products of their time and social status.
Guarded, they initially appear aloof, but their hesitancy to open up is natural. In their formative years, ladies did not draw attention to themselves nor do they now, as was evidenced when Barbara Watson left her job quietly a couple of years ago.
Additionally, as representatives of a small number of highly-educated and monied blacks, they were expectd to represent the best of both worlds.
To most that era seems like bound and dusty history, but not to the Watsons. "People talk of black history; we lived it," said Barbara Watson, as the sisters settled in the living room of the townhouses they share and easily retreated into those times. As they reminisce they speak in a very matter-of-fact fashion, at times romantic, but never bragging.
A few blocks away from the Watson's Harlem home, Al'elia Walker, the daughter of Madame C. J. Walker, a former laundress who made millions with a line of hair-grooming products, entertained the rich and famous. On other avenues the downcast spirits of the Depression were uplifted by religious cult figures, such as Daddy Grace. On the stage, companies such as the Lafayette Players drew rave reviews from the day's leading critics.
"Our home was a place where people of great achievments came and went," said Barbara Watson, "and what was important was that as children we heard discussions of contributing, not discussions of how to make more money. That was considered sterile."
At the center of this activity was Judge Watson, who arrived in New York from Jamaica, West Indies, in 1905, just as blacks were beginning to move into Harlem. He ran an elevator as a college student. At New York Law, he became an associate of Elmer Rice, the attorney and Pultizer-Prize winning playwright, and started his friendships with many celebrities.
With his election to the election to the bench in 1930, one of the few blacks to hold a city-wide office, Watson became part of the power structure. "During one of the race riots in Harlem, the police came to the house and asked father to come down to the precincts. He helped calm the people down," recalled Barbara Watson.
Besides Barbara and Grace, the Watsons had two other children, James, now a judge in the U.S. Customs Court in New York, and Douglas Watson, an aeronautics engineer. They all remember the tall, handsome judge as a politician who refused to pay $10,000 to the Democrats for a place on the ballot as a man who declined an invitation to a reception for King George V because no other blacks had been invited, and as the loving father who set aside each Wednesday evening for his children. When he died in 1952, nearly 10,000 people attended his funeral.
"We knew Peter Freuchen, the explorer, Niels Bohr, the scientist, Kwame Nhrumah, later the president of Ghana, when he was a student. Our parents' lives were an important part of our education," said Barbara Watson. "We grew up participants in a broad range of discussions," added Grace Watson. "We heard Claude McKay recite 'If We Must Die,' and then we listened to Winston Churchill on the radio stir up the British with those same lines and we wondered if Claude ever got the credit."
As children of prominent people, they found out very early that notoriety could backfire. "One night we wanted to go to the Mimo Club to hear one of the famous bands. James and I were still underage, so we used false names at the door," said Grace. "We got inside, ordered our soft drinks and started dancing. Right by the dance floor were Fannie and Bill Robinson, the great dancer, and artist Romare Bearden's parents. They were all friends of the family and so we knew the news would get home before we did."
Harlem has now lost most of that grandeur. As other neighborhoods opened up to blacks, those who could afford moved out. Those caught in the web of poverty and racism stayed. As the neighborhood changed Violet Watson insisted that when she died her house would be sold to a benevolent group and not to a speculator who would chop it into rooms for rent.
Since his own career had been marked his firsts, Judge Watson expected his children to break new ground. After finishing Barnard College, where she was later the first black trustee, Barbara Watson tried one week of law school. Then she decided to start her own business, opening a modeling school that broke the advertising color line for a number of major corporations. Some of her students in her ten years as a businesswoman were later famous, including returned to law school, then worked Cicely Tyson.
In the early 1960s Barbara Watson of major corporations. Some of her first appointment to the State Department in 1966.
Grace Watson earned her law degree right after college but never practiced. She helped with the modeling agency, as did their mother, and then directed the National School Volunteers Program.
After organizing a reading conference here in 1969, Grace Watson started working for the federal government. In Washington Grace Watson has lived quietly, sharing her sister's support of the arts and educational groups, but standing supportively by the sidelines as her sister gained the limelight.
Barbara Watson sometimes found the publicity undersirable. At the State Department Watson was very effective both as a visible black and woman. Three years ago Watson, then the highest-ranking black official at State, found herself the center of a very public storm.
Abruptly the White House decided to accept the resignation Watson had routinely submitted after the 1972 elections. It was speculated that her long-standing feud with Frances Knight, the director of the Passport Office, and loyal Republican, was one of the reasons. Miss Knight refused to discuss her relationship with Miss Watson.
While outsiders protested Watson's ousting, she was silent. "I was surprised at the response from around the country." she recalled, "but I maintained that it was the President's perogative to dismiss any appointee."
For months the controversy dragged on. Watson standing on her principles, waiting until the White House demanded her resignations. She remained in Washington, did some legal work and gave lectures for International Women's Year. When the Carter administration beckoned her back for her old job, now an assistant-secretary rank, she accepted because she liked the emphasis on human rights and consumerism. Not for any vindication.
"I was really enjoying the real world. Our family was public-service oriented. I was raised listening to people with principles - Paul Robeson, Jawaharlal Nehru and my mother and father. So I was persuaded that things had to be done."