Corene Watkins
(1912 — 1981)

As remembered by Annette Jones White
March 2013

The Avon Lady

She was born August 25, 1912 in Terrell County, later known in Southwest Georgia as "Terrible Terrell" because of its blatant mistreatment of its Black citizens. She later made Albany, Georgia her home, but she continued to worship at Jordan Grove Baptist Church in Leesburg, Georgia and never changed her membership.

Her name was Corene Watkins, and all of the children in our neighborhood, including me, called her "Miss Corene" and called her husband "Mr. Isaac." She liked children, and children liked her and the way she interacted with them. I do not remember not knowing her. She was a friend of the family and lived near us, so close that we could see each other when we sat on our front porches; so close that if we talked loud enough, we could hold a conversation.

She always appeared to be in a good mood, waving and smiling as she came and went in her snow white uniform and shoes. She was a domestic worker who also was a seamstress in the neighborhood. A good neighbor, she visited and fed the sick, swapped recipes and did whatever she could to help those in need. Friends and neighbors knew that she was dependable and that she put her heart and soul into whatever she did. But who would have thought that she would devote so much time and energy to the struggle for equality in Albany when it began publicly in 1961 or that she would be so deeply committed to that struggle?

She spoke out frequently against discrimination and Jim Crow laws, once in response to negative comments made to her by her White employer. She was fired because of her comments and after awhile, she found work as an Avon representative.

Once The Albany Movement began, she was always found in a seat near the front of whatever church was hosting a mass meeting. Her strong voice could be heard saying "amen" and singing hymns or Freedom Songs over the voices of others throughout the church. It was clear that she was committed to the cause and to non-violent direct action because her face was like a mirror reflecting all she felt about what she and other activists were doing. She was a part of The Albany Movement from its beginning to its end. Because she had been fired she had more time to devote to The Albany Movement. She was able to sell Avon products on her own time schedule while encouraging clients, friends and neighbors to register, vote, attend mass meetings and join the struggle to end segregation and discrimination.

She was known and well-liked by the members of SNCC who had come to Albany to set up a voter registration project in Southwest Georgia. She developed a certain rapport with many of the young Albany activists and many of the SNCC student volunteers who came to Albany from colleges and universities around the country during the summers of 1962 and 1963. She considered them to be a godsend and was grateful that they were giving so much of themselves to help Albany and Southwest Georgia. They affectionately called her "The Avon Lady" because she frequently gave them miniature samples of the products.

When she was not near the front of a line of protest marchers, it was usually because she was already in jail, arrested for a previous march to City hall or some other targeted area. She always marched — I should say strutted — with pride and purpose, holding her head up and her shoulders back. When she knelt on the sidewalk or on the steps at City Hall, her voice was steady and her prayers were fervent. She participated in many marches to protest unjust actions and laws in Albany, including the following:

She supported the boycott of downtown stores whose executives refused to hire Black people in jobs other than menial ones or to remove other policies of segregation and discrimination; she supported the boycott of city buses when Ola Mae Quartimon was arrested for refusing to move from the front of a bus to the back and she supported the boycott of the Albany Herald newspaper for its racist attitude towards the Black community. When she could, she also contributed food to help me provide breakfasts and dinners for 14 SNCC volunteers during the summer of 1962.

She marched and was arrested so many times that police Chief Laurie Pritchett knew her on sight and by name. He would often pick her out of a large crowd and arrest her first saying with exasperation, "Come on, Corene." They would talk back and forth as he arrested her. She said he once asked her., "Corene, don't you get tired of marching and going to jail?" Her answer: "No, Chief. You'll get tired of putting me in jail before I get tired of marching for freedom."

Whenever she marched, she would be well-prepared for a two or three day jail stay. Concealed on her person would be money, small containers of deodorant and tooth paste, tooth brushes, soap, disposable wash cloths, combs, small hard candies, chewing gum and other items, all of which she shared with other jailed protestors. She marched so many times and spent so much time in jail that people in our neighborhood called her Miss Albany Movement.

During the hot and humid months of summer when she marched, she always carried a church fan; that fan became her signature. There is an un-named picture of her on her knees, fan in hand, "praying for a city in crisis" with a group at City Hall just before they were arrested. (Jenkins, Mary Royal. Open Dem Cells: A Pictorial History of the Albany Movement. Columbus, Georgia: Brentwood Academic Press, 2000, p. 55.)

Although her name is never mentioned by mouth or caption, she appears in brief spotlight shots in television documentaries about the Civil Rights Movement in general and in Southwest Georgia. For example, in part 4 of "Eyes on the Prize" entitled "No Easy Walk" (1962-1966), she is seen in a close-up shot at a mass meeting as she smiles and sings with the congregation as they leave the church on their way to march downtown. They are singing we shall go to jail, one of the verses of "We shall Over-come." Later, she is seen holding her fan while she is being singled out from the group being arrested. She is smiling as she rises from her knees, and the arresting officer (who recognizes her) beckons her to him saying, "Come on." He also makes a comment about her smiling. In "Freedom Songs of the Civil Rights Movement," she is seen briefly and up-close singing with the congregation at a mass meeting. I think she is in those documentaries because something about her caused the eye of the cameraperson to see/feel the depth of her commitment, the freeness of her spirit and the abundance of her energy — her countenance — to such a degree that he or she was moved to allow the eye of the camera to linger on her face and try to capture that countenance on film.

In 1981, I went to Albany for the twentieth anniversary celebration of The Albany Movement. Her absence from the celebration was duly noted and those of us who came from out of town asked questions about her. Bernice Johnson Reagon and I were told that she was ill and unable to leave her home. By then she had moved into an apartment not far from her former house. Rev. Samuel B. Wells offered to drive us to her apartment. He told us that he stopped by to check on her and pray with her whenever he could.

She was happy to see us and disappointed that she was unable to take part in the anniversary events. During our visit, she asked Bernice to sing a song for her, and Bernice sang "Precious Lord." after which Rev. Wells said a special prayer for "Sister Watkins," as he called her. Visiting her was very special for me, and so is the memory of it. That visit was the last time that I saw her.

I shall never forget her and the contributions she made to help eradicate discrimination and segregation in Albany and Southwest Georgia. Several years after her death, as a tribute to her, I made sure that a brick containing her name was placed at the Albany Civil Rights Institute among the bricks containing the names of Albany Movement activists. Although she never sought recognition, I think she is smiling and liking the idea of once again being a part — a lasting part — of The Albany Movement.

She is survived by her only child, eighty-five year old Rev. Henry Marshall of Newark, New Jersey.

Annette Jones White

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