At 78, she wears a walking cast as she steps slowly through the remodeled entry of her South Los Angeles home. She touches her swollen right knee, which is not unlike her front door—newly replaced. Retirement is long overdue for the former congresswoman who rarely slows down. Where her career ends her memoir begins.
The concrete path to Dr. Diane Watson’s Harcourt Boulevard home is painted cherry-cola red. Her front yard is narrow, freshly cut and green. Of all of the 1940s bungalows on her block, the white house with the deco columns and an English chime doorbell is where all the commotion is now.
Just six months ago she had the house remodeled to accommodate her late mother’s care. Her bungalow is a charming mix of new and old French ‘haute monde’ design. Each picture frame is a splash of gold. On the side table there are more than 20 framed photographs of family, friends and colleagues. Some are living. Some are dead.
Each mirror casts a spectral light. White settees adorned with crisp pillows beckon at the entry where a grand portrait of a woman who sits like royalty looks out from a massive frame. According to her houseguest, opera diva Brenda Jackson, the retired congresswoman never sleeps. Jackson warns that ‘Lady Di’s’ day began at 2 a.m. as she was called to hold vigil at the bedside of her first cousin Lynn; a proud woman well into her nineties. She passed away early that morning.
Now the retired Congresswoman sits on an ivory chaise. Two college-aged ladies bring her a tray of tempura and brown rice, begging that she rests, eats. Dr. Watson is the matriarch of her family. Her maternal grandmother, Edith once held the position. Edith was born a “slave master’s child”, so she was allowed to get an education. She studied at Providence hospital in Chicago. She knew that the only way out of that life was education, so she moved her children to California. She did not want her children or her grandchildren living in the South.
LOS ANGELES TOP TO BOTTOM
It took seven years to finally reach California soil. Edith’s husband, who she called Mr. O’Neal, only knew plantation work and wanted to start a farm at Watts Field — the large swath of land where Watts Towers stand today. “The only time my mother ever heard her mother yelling was on that day,” Watson says as she imitates her grandmother’s voice and throws up her hands. “Mr. O’Neal wants to take all of us to Watts Field to farm! Shrieked Grandma Edith, I cannot believe it—he wants to farm, and we have come all this way!” And so they went. But they did not stay. Watson’s learned grandmother saw to that. She had better plans for her children than selling fresh vegetables out of the back of their father’s pickup truck.
Watson’s mother was born in Chicago. Her father was born in Kansas. Watson and her siblings were born at County General Hospital in Los Angeles. At that time, 50th Street and Central Avenue was the borderline for people of color—just a few miles from the hospital steps. Her father worked for the Los Angeles Police Department and was transferred to the University Station in South Los Angeles, where he rented a house on nearby Cimarron Street. The neighborhood grew around their house to include many Hollywood personalities. Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, the sidekick to actor Jack Benny, and Man tan Moreland—a vaudevillian legend — built fine houses there. In the height of the golden age, the roots of Hollywood grew right underneath the saddle shoes of the Watson girls. But they would not become Hollywood starlets.
Young Diane was going to go even higher than the star walk. “Because of my grandmother and her sisters, we all understood that education was the thing,” Watson says. “And so I went to City College, I went on to UCLA, I continued my education and got my Ph.D. in 1987. I went to school at night and I would write my dissertation all night, even though I was already in the Senate, I would write and work on my education and go to the Senate Floor in the morning.”
Dr. Watson’s work may have kept her busy on Capitol Hill, but her small apartment in D.C., she says, was not her home. She longed for the Los Angeles Boulevards and the faces of her people. “Even when I was living up on the Hill, I knew that my home was here in my district,” Watson says. She moved into her own white house in August of 1970. Her modest home has hosted scores of her constituents, family, extended family and hosts of friends.
‘THE BOOKS ARE YOUR WAY OUT,’ GRANDMOTHER SAID
The three Watson girls were tall and beautiful some say, but Barbara Jean and Patsy got all the boys, and ‘Di’ got all the books. She won all of the merit awards and all of the scholarships. There were debutante parties and white dress affairs that the Watson girls attended with the daughters of their mother’s friends. “My beloved sister Barbara Jean went out on dates and rode around in cars with boys — they all did. I just stayed behind and studied,” Watson says. As the other girls married and settled down to “homemaking” Watson says she could not be bothered. The future congresswoman was always leaving home for a meeting or an event. She wanted to network. Watson joined community organizations and was so well received that she says she eventually became president of all of them. She was popular with the older ladies, who she says mentored her lovingly.
THE MASTER PLAN
Watson fondly recalls her days at City College because it was closest to her home. Also, it was small. The smallness of her classes and the individual attention that she was afforded from her professors in anthropology, geology and music, formed her academic foundation. Many of her classes were 20 or fewer students, unlike the UCLA Halls with more than 450 students in the lectures. There, Watson remembers professors did not even teach—the teachers’ assistants taught.
Watson said it was ingrained in all of “Grandma Edith’s kin” that education was the only way out of strife and hardship, for each of them and all of them. It was a group effort. Watson commuted by bus to and from the UCLA campus from 27th and Arlington Avenue. Then, Watson says, her great aunt did something for her that changed her life. She offered the retirement pay from her Post Office job and put up the money for Watson’s room and board at the university. This allowed her to live at Stevens House near Campus.
When the 27-bed residence opened in 1948, blacks, Asian Americans and Latinos could not get places in the school’s only dorm or access to Westwood apartments. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven. It was the first of its kind – an experiment in interracial living,” Watson says. “There were 27 girls. It couldn’t be too many blacks, whites, Asians, and there was just one Hispanic who was my roommate; a movie producer’s daughter.” Watson said that of the Stevens’ girls, those still living, are her friends today.
She recalls the excitement of being out on the town with the producer’s daughter, away from the watchful eyes of their mentors – at the age of 18 in the golden age of Hollywood. Sporting two cameras each and borrowing their friend’s good clothes to look the part as pre-viewers, they crowded into the streets. All of the producers and the biggest stars appeared at the “first-niters.”
‘FOLLOW ME AND JUST DO WHAT I DO, DIANE …’
The girls walked right up to Humphrey Bogart in his soft gray fedora. The young and the bright blonde actress on his arm was none other than Marilyn Monroe. The girls just smiled and busied themselves along with all of the other photographers and called out the stars to pose just like the real press people did and then snapped their pictures. That is how Watson met most of Hollywood’s hierarchy.
Watson planned to begin her career as a teacher after Pauline Slater, her great aunt became the first black teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The world map on the classroom wall was a constant reminder to her that there were many exciting countries to visit and exciting people to meet. Deep inside, she always knew that she was born to travel the world. She says she taught a third grade class for one year and then she took off. Her mother and her aunts watched with heavy hearts as she boarded a plane for Europe with a group of CSU students.
‘I WALKED THE WALL, I DID IT ALL’
By the time she was 27, Watson had already traveled the world; Japan to England, France to China and Germany to Russia and back again. “I worked in Okinawa, Japan, I worked in France, I would just jump on with whatever group was going and go,” Watson says. “Never mind sleeping, I was too busy. I walked the wall, I did it all.”
‘BEST FOR THE CHILDREN OF THE AFRIKANERS’
In 1990, under Apartheid, Congresswoman Watson went to South Africa for the first time in a group of 20, and only four of them were people of color. The congresswoman and her group met with whom she called “Coos” van der Merva. He was the second in line in the apartheid movement. Watson recalls the meeting was overshadowed by the recent release of Nelson Mandela — a leading anti-apartheid campaigner freed from prison in South Africa after 27 years.
“We stood in the elevator lobby, none came to greet us or anything,” Watson says. “We waited there 20 minutes and then a tall man with a sweaty head and wrinkly clothes came to where we were standing — he looked like an unmade bed.” The man led the group to a larger room where there were two “official-looking” men already seated at the far end of the meeting room table. Although he received the group cordially, he made it clear that his meeting with them did not mean that he agreed with them. Nobody spoke. Then the big man slammed both of his fists down hard on the table and yelled “South Africa for the Afrikaners!” according to Watson. Then he spoke.
“When white man came there were no blacks in the southern tip of Africa,” he says. Van der Merva explained that he knows what is best for the next generation—segregation. The congresswoman says she could not sit by for that. She rose up in her chair and told him that she had learned in college that the “bushman” and the “Hottentot” inhabited the Cape of Good Hope. Her words angered him. He fired back that “they weren’t Africans they were Asians.” The man explained to the group that just because the Asians walked along a great land bridge and settled along the southern part of his country, they were not Africans. Watson told him that though he may be historically correct, her grandmother had told her they were not white. Silence filled the great room and the visit came to a swift end.
OUT OF THE ISLAND
From there her group of 19 people traveled through the South Africa Creole and the dreaded Robben Island—situated 11 kilometers off the coast of Cape Town. The island was first used in the 1700s to hold captive slaves. In later years, it imprisoned the unwanted—Mandela was held captive on Robben Island for 18 years. They took the tour to where the wind blows up the Cape through the docks of the white traders’ ships. Watson says that the tours provide excellent insight into this historic place. Their guide was a man well versed in South African culture; a curator’s son from District Six Museum. A small boat carried them out to the dungeons across the channel in the rising sea air; she says that as the boat clipped along she could not escape the smell of flesh.
“The spirit of all of the ancestors comes flooding right down on you; you can feel it,” Watson puts her hand to her mouth. “It takes the breath right out of you to think of all that pain, and it makes the work that we do now so much more important.” Dr. Watson and the group stood in the small chamber cells where the captives had stood like cattle waiting to die.
They stood right where “the chained” waited for the boats to come and take them to the New World. It was dank. It was dark. She said it felt like the end of dreams. They sailed through the islands along the same shores where 11,128,000 live slaves were delivered to the New World during the Atlantic slave trade. “All of the sadness of this place,” Watson says, “It comes over like the ghosts.”
Watson’s group was sobbing by the end of the tour. All 19 of them in the group were sobbing. Black and white. Dr. Watson proudly held her seat as the 33rd District Representative of the United States Congress for eight years but spent 20 years in the California Senate. She worked through what she called the adversity of two Bush presidencies to do right by her conscience down to the last majority vote. The next president of the United States, Bill Clinton, would appoint her U.S. Ambassador to Micronesia — a cluster of 607 small islands just north of the equator.
When she first was invited to meet presidential hopeful William Jefferson Clinton, he was attending a convention in Arkansas. Watson looked up and saw him with “his curly blonde hair and striking blue eyes” and she was taken with him instantly. Watson says that the other members of her delegation said if he wanted to be the president he better forget it — he was the last speaker to speak and he talked for 45 minutes and everybody was trying to leave. After a hard year on the campaign trail, he came to California.
Watson recalls how she stepped up to show him around her home district. She says that he was well received by the congregations when they toured the “super churches” in Los Angeles County. Watson took the former governor of Arkansas to five services on a single Sunday. Some of these churches have 300,000 members. “And that is how we did it,” Watson says. “If you come out to church, then they all remember you at the ballot box.” Just a few months later, Clinton was inaugurated president.
To commemorate the event the congresswoman was invited to a convention in New York City. Watson was in her evening best. When she saw the placards on her box seats she could not believe where she was sitting. Lauren Bacall, Jackie Kennedy and Yuhl Brenner were already there. Then an usher told her that she was needed on the sixth floor and escorted her to the elevators.
Watson knocked on the door at the end of the lobby. A “stern man” opened it and asked her name. That man was Hubert Humphrey. “Humphrey was a tall man, a little taller than me, about 6-foot-6,” Watson says. “He was talking with a lady who had dark hair with a shock of white at the top. She could not have been more than 5-foot-4. He said, “I want you to meet Bill Clinton’s mother.” The two women became fast friends. Clinton’s mother adored her company. The two ladies spent most of the evening together and after that, Watson and the Clintons shared a special relationship. “I love Bill Clinton, and you can quote me on that!” Watson says. “I know that he is who he is because of the love of his mother.”
A WELCOMED ADVANTAGE
Watson was appointed Chair to the Department of Health and Human Services for the U.S. Senate for 17 years. “I am proud to say that I was the one responsible for getting the focus on the health and the welfare of the African-American on the 1980 Census,” Watson recalls how at the time there were only three categories for race. “Caucasoid, Mongoloid, or Negroid,” Watson peers over the rims of her glasses and crossing her arms she says, “I called up the director and pitched the idea that we should call ourselves where our gene pool was for identification —and that is how we got that changed on the ballot.”
During the Clinton Administration’s reworking of the welfare system, Dr. Watson was right at the helm speaking up for the thousands of families in her district. She says during the Rodney King riots, she was there for the angry kids in the streets, talking them back from harm’s way.
When the late Johnny Cochran was waiting for the O.J. verdict, she was in Germany and told her friends that she might need to fly back that same evening if the court decision came back guilty, because Cochran was in her district. Dr. Watson says that she will proudly live out the rest of her days here in Los Angeles, her first and only home. Times are still busy. There are local charity functions and caucus groups, and she says she does her best to show up and join in. There are many folks around Hollywood who still call her for help even though she is no longer an elected official. She answers her own single-line house phone. She plans festive agendas for community events and social gatherings. She attends Gala celebrations, weddings, birthdays, and christenings, even the after-parties of the Oscars. When asked to participate in official business, she refers people to the woman who now sits in her Wilshire Boulevard office—her successor, Congresswoman Karen Bass.
FIRST AND LAST DAYS
On Jan. 5, 2011, Watson spent the better part of the afternoon taking Bass around and introducing her to everyone before her swearing in with all of the other newcomers. At the end of the day, Dr. Watson said she wanted to introduce her successor to a woman who she lovingly calls her ‘BFF’. “So, I took Karen down to the Floor at the second row and when the woman looked up she said, ‘Oh, no Diane, you are not leaving us are you?’ I said, Karen, meet Gabrielle, she is dear to my heart and you are going to love her.” That woman was Gabrielle Giffords. Both women left the Hill that day. Gabrielle was the last person that Dr. Watson had spoken to on her last day in Washington.