Watkins, Donald 1948–
Donald Watkins 1948—
Donald Watkins, a prominent Alabama attorney, banker, and entrepreneur, made sports headlines in the year 2001 with a series of attempts to buy a major league baseball team—a move that, if successful, would make him major league baseball’s first African-American team owner. The maneuvering that followed his announcement of his intentions provided fascinating insight into the murky world of high finance and into the way it intersects with the American racial divide. Even before his forays into sports, however, Watkins had notched a remarkable series of accomplishments. Many of those accomplishments had been carried out in the face of controversy, but, as Watkins told the New York Times, “I have a long and distinguished track record of kicking butt.”
Watkins was born in Parsons, Kansas, on September 8, 1948, but was raised in Montgomery, Alabama. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was his family’s pastor at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks was also a friend of the family. “Watching those civil rights figures before they became famous taught me how to focus under incredible circumstances and hostility,” Watkins told the New York Daily News.
The recipient of a top-flight education helped along by the fact that his father, Levi Watkins, was president of Alabama State University, Watkins attended a private laboratory school connected with the university and moved on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Southern Illinois University. Watkins had five siblings, and “they’re all smarter than I am,” he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. They include two surgeons—his older brother, Levi, performed the world’s first human implantation of an automatic heart defibrillator—a mathematics Ph.D., a school principal, and a music teacher.
At Southern Illinois Watkins had planned to study architecture, but he decided to apply to law school after reading an account of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of black men falsely accused of raping a white woman on a train in a case that made national headlines in 1931 and came to exemplify the bias of the Southern legal system. Though he had hoped to leave the South, Watkins was lured back to Alabama by an NAACP scholarship set up to aid in the integration of the previously all-white University of Alabama law school. Watkins earned his law degree in 1973. He worked in Montgomery for Rosa Parks’s lawyer, Fred D. Gray, later the first black president of the Alabama Bar. In 1979 Watkins opened his own practice in Birmingham, then just beginning to try to dissolve the social and governmental structures of its violent segregationist past.
One of his first cases as a lawyer had revolved around the attempt to secure a pardon for the last living defendant in the Scottsboro Boys case, Clarence Norris; Watkins arranged a pardon from Gov. George Wallace, a longtime defender of segregation. Other cases were more controversial—Watkins represented black Birmingham residents in two high-profile cases involving police misconduct, and he initiated a lawsuit,
At a Glance…
Born September 8, 1948, in Parsons, KS; son of Levi Watkins (a university president); married DeAndra Johnson; five children. Education: Southern Illinois University, bachelor’s degree, 1970; University of Alabama, law degree, 1973. Politics: Independent. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Worked for law office of Fred B. Gray, Montgomery, AL, early 1970s; opened own law office in Birmingham, 1979; served on Birmingham City Council, 1979-83; extensive legal work for Birmingham city government as Special Counsel to the Mayor of Birmingham, 1985-99; Alabama State University, trustee, 1994-01; chairman of the board, Alamerica Bank, 1999-; owner of several energy firms including Masada Oxynol, a company aiming to transform municipal garbage into ethanol fuel.
Addresses: Home —Birmingham, AL; Office —Alamerica Bank, 2170 Highland Ave., Suite 150, Birmingham, AL 35205.
at first unsuccessful but ultimately productive, against the flying of the Confederate flag over Alabama’s state capitol. From 1979 to 1983 Watkins served on Birmingham’s city council, where he often clashed with tough-talking Birmingham mayor Emory Folmar. “When he’s on the same side, he’s a terrific guy,” Folmar was quoted as saying of Watkins by the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. “When you’re on the other side, he’s the devil incarnate.”
Folmar eventually decided he would rather have Watkins as an ally, and began to direct city legal work to Watkins’s office. The relationship between Watkins and the city administration intensified after the election of Birmingham’s first African-American mayor, Richard Arrington, who had known Watkins’s father from the years when they both served as educational administrators. As special counsel to the mayor of Birmingham, Watkins shepherded the Arrington administration through a series of legal challenges that included accusations of favoritism in the awarding of city contracts; though investigated by various agencies, Arrington emerged unscathed. During this period Watkins began to amass considerable personal wealth, but observers often noted his lack of ostentation—he continued to drive a black Chevrolet sedan, replaced yearly, and he, his wife DeAndra, and their five children continued to live in a modest house in Birmingham.
Watkins gained a higher national profile when he represented Auburn University football player Eric Ramsey, who charged that he was offered cash payments to join the school’s football program; the ensuing investigation led to the resignation of head coach and athletic director Pat Dye and to a two-year Auburn probation. Watkins became more interested in sports when he joined the board of Alabama State University in the mid-1990s. He laid big plans for the school’s football team, trying to persuade the institution to commit the resources to elevate the team to NCAA Division 1-A status (it would have been the first historically black team to reach that level), and claiming that he had foreign investors lined up to finance a $100 million new stadium. The university declined to proceed with the plan, and Watkins eventually left the board.
Meanwhile, Watkins had made a series of diverse career moves. A political independent, he founded the website voternewsnetwork.com, which featured nonpartisan investigations of important issues of the day. Despite his roots in the Democratic party, Watkins backed President George W. Bush’s controversial nomination of John Ashcroft as U.S. Attorney General, and he cautioned black voters against aligning themselves too closely with the Democrats. Watkins opened Alamerica Bank, a small institution in Birmingham, and made forays into real estate. Most beneficial to his personal fortune, however, were his energy investments. In the mid-1990s Watkins had shrewdly invested in the fuel additive ethanol, just as it was gaining favor over its allegedly more hazardous rival, MBTE.
Watkins claimed personal assets of $1.5 billion, but some portion of that figure included projected revenues from an exciting new technology to which Watkins owned the rights through a Birmingham company he controlled called Masada Oxynol. Watkins announced plans for the construction of a plant in Middletown, New York, that would convert municipal garbage into fuel-grade ethanol. The technology plainly offered the possibility of enormous profits down the road, but it left open the question of how much cash Watkins could bring to the table at any given time—a question that became of paramount importance when Watkins began shopping for a major-league baseball team in 2001. With most of his investments connected to private companies, public records offered little insight.
After initial discussions involving the Montreal Expos and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Watkins made serious overtures toward the 86-year-old owner of the Minnesota Twins, Carl Pohlad. Watkins made an offer of $125 million for the Twins, sweetening the deal with a plan to build a new domed stadium without public financing, but reports in Forbes magazine and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune questioned his financial readiness to make the purchase. Watkins welcomed the questions. “I expect people to be skeptical and critical, and that’s OK. This is America,” he told the Star-Tribune. “I’m not looking for anybody to be a cheerleader.” Alabama observers differed on Watkins’s effot. “I believe Donald Watkins can buy [the Twins] when Easter comes on Tuesday,” Alabama Democratic activist and Watkins rival Joe L. Reed told the Star-Tribune. Other observers, though, wondered whether Watkins’s bid was receiving special scrutiny because of his race.
Watkins’s bid for the Twins stalled in the spring of 2002, and Watkins began to pursue an opportunity to purchase the California Angels from its owner, the Walt Disney Company. This time Watkins produced a letter from the New York investment firm UBS PaineWebber, offering to back a $150 million financing deal. Once again, however, the significance of the figure was murky; the letter could be interpreted to mean either that the financing was in place or that the firm would merely assist Watkins in seeking investors. At this writing, the Angels deal, too, remained unresolved. Watkins, however, brimmed with characteristic confidence. “I am going to have a baseball team,” he told Forbes. If he achieved his goal, it would be the crown jewel in an already impressive career.
American Banker, May 9, 2001, p. 7.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 21, 1991, p. El; February 13, 2002, p. CI.
Daily News (New York), February 3, 2002, p. 67; February 14, 2002, p. 90.
Forbes, April 1, 2002, p. 60.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, December 21, 2001, p. K1487.
Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2002, p. D7; April 19, 2002, p. Dil; May 28, 2002, p. Dl; June 29, 2002, p. D8; July 13, 2002, part 4, p. 8.
Montreal Gazette, February 14, 2002, p. C7.
New York Times, March 4, 2002, p. Dl.
Star-Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), December 22, 2001, p. Al; December 29, 2001, p. Al; May 2, 2002, p. Bl.
Washington Post, April 3, 1977, p. CI; March 13, 1983, p. A2.
—James M. Manheim
"Watkins, Donald 1948–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/watkins-donald-1948
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