By Jerald Lee Watts, M.D., House, 1950
Georgia was still in the throes of racial segregation in the late 1940s and 19502 – a “Jim Crow” state whether anyone admitted it or not. At one time there were even “White Only” election primaries that ended when the courts set aside such procedures. Discriminatory practices were hard to overcome. But with Civil Rights advocates such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, the “Movement” was beginning to flex its voting muscle in Atlanta and a few Southern states.
There was government resistance to change at every level of local politics. Yet in the back rooms of Atlanta power brokers, Mayor Ivan Allen, Chief of Police Herbert Jenkins and Coca-Cola executive Robert Woodruff tried to set a new course of desegregation and tolerance. I was proud when Judge Davis – who liked to be called that even after he became a Congressman – nominated Jimmy Jenkins, son of the Police Chief and a friend of mine, to be a Page after me.
Before I reported for my term in Washington, our school newspaper featured an article, “Mr. Watts Goes to Washington, a parody of the “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” all in good fun.
Upon arrival in Washington, Judge Davis’ staff took me to meet William “Fish Bait” Miller, who had been the Door Keeper of the House for many years. I understood he was in charge of all patronage jobs, including Pages, police and almost everything about the House side. He was, what was known in the day, a “Yellow Dog Democrat.”
His main job was to keep the Members happy. He could solve any problem that arose that might make a member uncomfortable. If a member needed a cigarette light, he was there in an instant with a handy “Zippo” lighter.
When we were announced at his office, he ushered us directly into his inner office. My mother, an attractive woman, seemed to lighten his demeanor and true to his roots in Pascagoula, Mississippi, he became “all Southern Charm with Southern chit-chat.” He bent over backwards to make her comfortable. To me, he was courteous and pleasant, but with a distance that we both knew meant he was my boss.
We barely sat down before he offered us each a “Coke.” We demurred at first and he said he would offer “only once.” We immediately accepted and we all enjoyed our ice-cold “Coca Cola,” the favorite drink of Atlanta. Our visit lasted about an hour. I was never back in his office. He did, however, inquire about the health of my mother when I encountered him on the House floor. I later learned that there were many Pages’ attractive mothers about whom he would routinely inquire.
Capitol Page School
When I arrived at Capitol Page School, housed in the top floor of the Library of Congress, I was treated courteously, yet as a newcomer it was clear I would have to prove myself to the established crowd. The other Southern boys and I were looked down on by the Northern boys. I was baffled by their ignorance. They seemed to think we all had come from red neck, red clay counties and they doubted we even wore shoes down South. They were surprised we weren’t wearing overalls. “Do you all have mules at home?” was the joke question.
My Southern classmates and I unpleasantly discovered that in Algebra, we were about 50 pages behind the Northern students. Our teacher told us we would have to catch up on our own. As a protest group, we walked out of class, stacked our books on the principal’s desk and asked for help. Although a truly nice guy, he said he could not “force the staff to correct the deficiencies of your school systems.” Was it a Yankee plot (as we suspected in our paranoia) to embarrass the Southern crowd? Perhaps. But who knows?
We withdrew from class at CPS and traveled by street car to the public D.C. night school twice a week to get our Algebra requirements. (And because Algebra was the first-period class at CPS, we also got to sleep in.) We made a pact to study hard. It worked. We each made all “A”s in our classes and the “Southern delegation” led the Page school academically. The established crowd finally noted that we “all wore shoes.”
An Unlikely Chauffer
The social event of the year was the Spring Prom, sponsored by our parents and Members of Congress. In 1950 it was held at the swanky Shoreham Hotel on Connecticut Ave., NW.
But how would I find a date? All the boys said that if a Page’s sponsor had a daughter of eligible age, he had to ask her to the dance. When I first arrived in Washington I did not know Mary, Judge Davis’ daughter and only child. My new Page friends told me she was cute and fun. I eventually met her and my friends were right. We got to know each other and she was my first and only choice for the Prom. Mary had to get permission to go with me because her father felt that some of the Pages were “too fast.”
At 15 I was too young to drive, so Judge Davis said he would take us. That evening, a large black Packard automobile pulled up in front of my boarding house, Judge Davis got out, and rang the bell. I immediately answered the door, corsage in hand. The Congressman led me to the car, and opened the door to the back, where Mary was waiting, wearing a lovely party gown. Judge Davis drove us to the Shoreham and, in a Southern white linen suit and dress straw hat, seated himself in the lobby with the Washington Post for the duration of the dance.
When the party ended, Judge Davis reappeared at the hotel entrance and escorted us back to the big Packard for the ride home. I have not been chauffeured by a Congressman since.
Mary and I had a wonderful time and 60 years later, are still friends.
Jerry graduated from Atlanta High School in 1952, attended Tulane University in New Orleans and graduated from Atlanta’s Emory University School of Medicine in 1959. He completed a surgical internship and residency at Grady Memorial Hospital before military duty. In the early 1960s he served in the U.S. Air Force as a general surgeon and flight surgeon. After military service he completed an orthopedic surgery residency at Grady, Emory University Hospital, Atlanta #48 Veterans Hospital and Egleston Children’s Hospital. He practiced orthopedic surgery for more than 32 years, and earned a law degree from Woodrow Wilson College of Law – Atlanta in 1987. Now retired, he lives in Peachtree City, Ga. With his companion, author Ellen Hunter Ulken and his English Setter, Scout.