Dr. Levi Watkins Sr., the sixth president of Alabama State University, was not a native of Montgomery, Ala., but his contributions to the city and state are noteworthy. In 1962, he joined the faculty of the historically black institution and transformed it into one of the top destination schools in the south. Dr. Watkins joined the staff of the school when it was still a small teacher’s college.
For years, the school had served as a base of operations for civil rights leaders, most especially the Montgomery Bus Boycotts of 1955. Rosa Parks, one of the civil rights movement’s most notable figures, attended the university.
Watkins came along during a time where racial tension in the South was at an all-time high and the civil rights movement faced some of its toughest challenges. Still, he led ASU to prominence despite the barriers of Jim Crow and other challenges. By the time Watkins retired in 1981, the school’s student body improved and he was able to gain accreditation via the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Watkins and his wife, Lillian, passed on their zeal for education onto their children. Their son, Dr. Levi Watkins Jr., is a prominent heart surgeon at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. and the first Black student to graduate from Vanderbilt University.
Another son is a retired surgeon and a daughter is a concert pianist. Watkins died on March 5, 1994 at 83. His wife died last October at 96. Mrs. Watkins was credited as the rock of the family and the true motivator of the children’s glowing successes. In November 2012, Alabama State re-dedicated the Levi Watkins Learning Center after some renovations were done to the building. The center also houses archived writings and other artifacts crucial to the memory of the civil rights movement.