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Award-winner helps University that never gave her the chance to attend

When Carlotta Stewart Watson wanted to get her master’s degree from The University of Memphis, she found the only way she could get on campus was by doing manual labor.

Nearly half a century later, Watson began giving money to the same school that snubbed her because of the color of her skin.

Watson’s contributions to The U of M never earned her a degree. However, they did earn her one of the alumni association’s highest honors— the Distinguished Friends Award.

Watson said over the years she’s donated well over $8,000 to U of M students, through the Rho Gamma Chapter of the Zeta Phi Beta graduate sorority — a chapter she founded.

Her acceptance speech at the March 2 awards ceremony reflected on her reasons for giving.

“My goal has always been to earn the respect of my fellow man,” Watson said. “I have attained my goal. Yet even at my age I shall continue being active in a positive way in order to remain worthy of that honor.”

The fact that Watson is still giving at her age is a feat in and of itself. Watson was born in 1900. She can remember when cow pastures surrounded her house in Orange Mound. Her eyes, still keen as ever without the aid of glasses, have seen this century move from covered wagons to computers.

Despite the challenges she faced in the 20th century, she has still managed to live an amazing life. She worked for more than 50 years in the Memphis City School system as a teacher and a guidance counselor. She was a radio personality for WDIA-AM 1070, the first radio station with programming specifically for African Americans. She traveled widely at a time when few black people enjoyed the privilege. She still volunteers to read newspapers and magazines on WYPL-FM 89.3, the Memphis Public Library radio station, for visually impaired listeners, a job she’s held since 1987.

Watson got her bachelor’s degree in education from LeMoyne-Owen College so she could teach. But she didn’t stop there. Watson wanted to get her master’s in order to become a guidance counselor. The University of Memphis, her first choice, wasn’t an option for a black woman in the ‘50s. She circumvented that roadblock by going to the University of Michigan.

“Instead of getting angry, I just went somewhere else,” Watson said. “That’s what all my activities are based on. If they wouldn’t let me do it, I’d find my own way.”

It’s that attitude that brought her to the attention of the alumni association. Dr. Dan Beasley, acting associate president for Alumni and Development, said he was impressed with Watson when he saw her speak at a ceremony last semester.

“Her attitude is one any age can learn from,” Beasley said. “She’s someone who knows her vision and knows how to teach it.”

Beasley said Watson deserved the award because she’s been donating to The University for so long, without any accompanying fanfare.

“She’s a friend of education, wherever it might be,” Beasley said.

Watson’s giant photo album, overflowing with memorabilia, is a testament to her dedication to education. The pictures of students she has helped over the years come in faded black and whites as well as full color. She’s particularly proud of starting a job fair for students she knew didn’t have much of a shot at college or a decent job.

“Somehow or another I always wanted to help that child nobody was helping,” she said.

Her legacy of helping challenged students lives on. When she retired from Booker T. Washington High School, a group of students who had benefited from her effort came back and established a scholarship fund in Watson’s name.

Watson is also known as a leader, especially during the days of integration. In the ‘60s, Tennessee had a convention for guidance counselors at Middle Tennessee State University.

“Law stated they were supposed to let blacks come but they didn’t. The superintendents went all over schools to find a black that would fit in with these whites and not shoot them,” Watson said with a laugh. “See, this fitting in was a mess.”

In 1960, Mayor Henry Loeb chose her to represent Memphis at the inauguration of Kwame Nkrumah, the first black president of Ghana. Watson said she and other African Americans were sent because England, who controlled Ghana, wanted the event to have the semblance of integration.

“Again, they had to find someone to fit in,” said Watson.

Watson said she learned some valuable lessons on that trip. She still remembers how the floors of President Nkrumah’s house were dirt, but nonetheless clean.

“I asked him why he didn’t put floors down and he said, ‘If I had wooden floors, I wouldn’t keep them clean. The dirt floor gives me ambition to keep the floor clean.’”

That trip wasn’t the only time Watson went overseas. She also saved enough money to go to Jerusalem. She has a picture of herself sitting alone at a table on the ship Queen Elizabeth. The crew didn’t know where to put her because there wasn’t a “colored” section, so she got to ride first class.

“I fought segregation. I just fought it in a different way. When you say I can’t, I say I can,” said Watson.

Over the years Watson has given plenty of donations to organizations she cares about. She said she could manage that because she sacrifices. Many of her stories begin with “Instead of buying a car, I spent that money on...” Consequently, her house is filled with awards and honors.

Still, this woman who drove the same car for 27 years so she could give more can’t understand why she receives so much recognition.

Watson said, “I don’t know why I create so much curiosity, I was just doing what came natural. I always said if I could ever get to where I could do something to help the fellow who was down like I was, I would.”

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