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Biography of Wenefrett Cecelia Phillips Watson

Wenefrett ‘Wene’ Cecelia Phillips Watson became active in the Oakland Public Schools where her children attended school. She was appointed to the Oakland Museum Commission and Oakland Symphony Board. As president of the Oakland Bay Area Chapter of the Links, Incorporated, Wene helped start the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Her passion for civil rights stimulated her to become active with the NAACP, the Urban League, and she eventually ran for City Council.

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Today, Wenefrett Cecelia Phillips Watson spends quiet moments as a resident of the Lake Park Independent Living Community surrounded by family and friends.
Today, Wenefrett Cecelia Phillips Watson spends quiet moments as a resident of the Lake Park Independent Living Community surrounded by family and friends.

Wenefrett ‘Wene’ Cecelia Phillips Watson was born on Oct. 29, 1921, in Marshall, Texas.

Her father was a dentist, and her mother was a fifth-grade teacher.

She earned a B.A. in English literature in three years at Bishop College. During World War II, she attended the University of Southern California where she earned a second Bachelor’s degree in Library Sciences at age 18. She met and married James A. Watson, a Howard University medical student, after she took a federal job in Wash., D.C. They relocated to Oakland in the late 1950s.

Wenefrett became active in the Oakland Public Schools where her children attended school. She was appointed to the Oakland Museum Commission and Oakland Symphony Board. As president of the Oakland Bay Area Chapter of the Links, Incorporated, Wene helped start the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Her passion for civil rights stimulated her to become active with the NAACP, the Urban League, and she eventually ran for City Council.

Wene was a business owner who created and managed WenTravel and Cruise travel agency on the first floor of the then newly constructed Oakland Marriott Downtown Hotel, Convention and Transportation Center in 1984. She held contracts with the City of Oakland, County of Alameda and the State of California as one of the few all-Black, women-owned small businesses. She retired in 1996.

Along with a wide variety of international dignitaries and ambassadors, four U.S. Presidents have met Wene Watson, including Lyndon B. Johnson, George Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

She and her husband James Watson were co-founders of Berkeley’s Church By the Side Of the Road.

Raising her children predominantly in the Oakland Unified Public School District, she and her family lived comfortably in their home on Mandana Boulevard near Lakeshore and the beautiful Lake Merritt.

Wene’s children all gave touching tributes to their mother and grandmother at her centennial birthday celebration recently. They all spoke of her ability to stabilize any adverse situation.

Wene said she was fortunate and blessed to have had a loving life partner in her husband, Dr. James A. Watson, for over 60 years. She also acknowledges the sweet friendship of Mr. Ray Dones, who brought happiness to her life after the passing of her dear husband.

After her retirement from her business in 1997, Wene reinvolved herself in the Links, where, as president, they first brought the Ebony Fashion Fair to Oakland, as well as the Oakland Museum where she spent 20 years playing a major role in ensuring African Americans were represented fairly and adequately.

Today, Wenefrett Cecelia Phillips Watson spends quiet moments as a resident of the Lake Park Independent Living Community surrounded by family and friends. She spends frequent moments with her loving son her children and grandchildren who have a range of talents, careers and accomplishments of their own as actors, models, lawyers and doctors.

At 100 years of age, she has survived one daughter, Janet Watson David; granddaughter Tiffany and grandson H. Geoffrey Watson, II.

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OPINION: A Great Way to ‘Listen to Black Women’ Is to Elect Them

Recent reports also show that Black candidates are faring especially well in Senate fundraising in the 2022 cycle. While summary numbers might mask persistent hurdles, these data indicate that Black candidates might be better financially positioned for electoral success in the next election.

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Candidacies neither ensure nomination nor election, but it’s a start. Black women — and others who are launching political campaigns — are doing what they can to create a more representative democracy.
Candidacies neither ensure nomination nor election, but it’s a start. Black women — and others who are launching political campaigns — are doing what they can to create a more representative democracy.

By Kelly Dittmar and Glynda C. Carr

Listen to Black women, they say. Support Black women, they tweet. The praise of Black women in recent years is evident in words, but public statements and hashtags must translate into action. And that action should include efforts to elect Black women.

Seven years ago, our organizations joined forces to spotlight the status of Black women in American politics. Since our first report, we have seen — and hopefully contributed to — great progress.

In that time, 17 new Black women were elected to Congress, including the second Black woman to ever serve in the U.S. Senate and the first Black women to represent their states from Connecticut, Delaware, Massachusetts, Missouri, Minnesota, New Jersey, Utah, and Washington. The number of Black women state legislators has risen by nearly 50%.

Black women have made tremendous strides in representation as big-city mayors, with 12 Black women taking office for the first time as mayors in the top 100 most populous cities from mid-2014 to present.

Today, Black women are mayors of eight major cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis. Just two weeks ago, Elaine O’Neal was elected as mayor of Durham, N.C.; she will take office in early December. And, of course, with Kamala Harris’ 2020 election as vice president, a Black woman now serves in the second-highest position in U.S government.

Progress for Black women in elective office is not measured in numbers alone. The effects of Black women’s political representation are evident in both disrupting white- and male-dominated institutions and making policy change.

Research at the state legislative and congressional levels has shown how Black women’s identities shape policy contributions and behaviors in ways that give voice to underrepresented groups and perspectives.

Five years ago, Representatives Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D-NJ), Robin Kelly (D-IL), and Yvette Clark (D-NY) created the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls to promote public policy that “eliminates significant barriers and disparities experienced by Black women.”

Just this year, representatives Lauren Underwood (D-IL) and Alma Adams (D-AL), with Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), have pushed for “momnibus” legislation to address the crisis in Black maternal health. And in late summer, Representative Cori Bush (D-MO) slept on the stairs of the U.S. Capitol as part of a relentless push to extend the eviction moratorium — which disproportionately affects Black and Brown Americans.

Black women have also been at the forefront of changing the actual institutions in which they serve. Bush’s efforts on the eviction moratorium included calls for institutional change, such as ending the filibuster, in hopes that it would clear the way for a policy agenda that would better serve Black communities.

And in a July 2020 floor speech, Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) made clear that patriarchy is “very much at home in the halls of this powerful institution” and called on her colleagues to build the world that all girls and women deserve, beginning with the institution of Congress.

Black women’s gains in representation should not mask the persistent hurdles they must navigate to find electoral success.

Research demonstrates that Black women are among those women more likely to be discouraged from running for office, confront disparities in campaign fundraising, navigate distinct politics of appearance, and are evaluated by voters and media alike in ways that both rely on and perpetuate damaging stereotypical biases.

Recent reporting has also revealed more than ever before the abuse that Black women face as both candidates and officeholders, abuse that is often rooted in the confluence of racism and misogyny and leads not only to personal harm but also to decisions to abandon political careers.

And while many Black women have navigated these hurdles en route to electoral success, Black women’s underrepresentation in elective office persists, especially in the Republican Party and offices elected statewide.

Today, just three Black Republican women serve as state legislators and no Black Republican women serve in statewide or congressional offices. Former Representative Mia Love (R-UT), the only Black Republican woman ever elected to Congress, was defeated in election 2018.

Her decision to stand up against then President Donald Trump in defense of Haitians specifically, and immigrants more broadly, damaged her chances for re-election and illustrated a distinct challenge she faced in giving voice to her own identity and experience while also aligning with the politics of her party. This challenge persists in today’s GOP, creating unique conditions for Black Republican women who decide to run.

Just two Black women have ever served in the U.S. Senate, and there are no Black women senators serving today amidst key debates over the economy, infrastructure, the environment, voting rights, criminal justice, and immigration.

Black women also hold just six of 310 statewide elective executive offices in the U.S., roles that are key to shaping state policy agendas and outcomes. Just 17 Black women have ever held statewide elected executive offices in 14 states, and no Black woman has ever served as governor.

The 2022 election offers some opportunities to address these gaps. With more than a year before Election Day, the number of Black women who have announced major-party candidacies for U.S. Senate has already exceeded the previous record of 13.

Recent reports also show that Black candidates are faring especially well in Senate fundraising in the 2022 cycle. While summary numbers might mask persistent hurdles, these data indicate that Black candidates might be better financially positioned for electoral success in the next election.

At least five Black women have announced major-party gubernatorial candidacies in this cycle, one short of the previous high. And there remains time for more Black women to step forward, including former Georgia House Minority Leader and organizer Stacey Abrams (D-GA), who is the only Black woman who has ever won a major-party gubernatorial nomination.

Candidacies neither ensure nomination nor election, but it’s a start. These Black women — and others who are launching political campaigns — are doing what they can to create a more representative democracy.

But their success relies on others, including those who issued public directives to support Black women over the past 18 months. You can support Black women on the campaign trail with your time and your money, and you can support Black women at the ballot box with your vote.

You can listen to Black women by ensuring they have seats at policymaking tables where their voices, expertise, and perspectives can inform substantive change. It’s time to translate words into actions.

Kelly Dittmar is an associate professor of Political Science at Rutgers-Camden and Director of Research and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. Glynda C. Carr is CEO and co-founder of Higher Heights for America.

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IN MEMORIAM: Celebrating Wenefrett P. Watson

Her greatest contribution was as a parent to James, a father and successful actor, Cynthia, a mother and contributor of many social and political events, Janet, a dedicated daughter who assisted her in the travel agency, Geoffrey, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a father and a dedicated and revered physician and Gary, an entertainment lawyer in Hollywood. As a world traveler, Wene invited and hosted international exchange students in her home to educate them and her children about the world.

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Wenefrett P. Watson will be laid to rest at Mountain View Cemetery on Friday, November 26, 2021, with services held at the Church By the Side Of the Road, 2108 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA at 1:00 P.M. (COVID-19 Protocols Observed). For more details and in-person/Zoom registration go to www.CBSOR.org/announcements.
Wenefrett P. Watson will be laid to rest at Mountain View Cemetery on Friday, November 26, 2021, with services held at the Church By the Side Of the Road, 2108 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA at 1:00 P.M. (COVID-19 Protocols Observed). For more details and in-person/Zoom registration go to www.CBSOR.org/announcements.

October 29, 1921- November 9, 2021

Wenefrett P. Watson, Wene, born in Marshall Texas, October 29, 1921, graduated from Bishop College where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature. She went on to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles securing a degree in Library Sciences (the same university where her daughter, Cynthia went on to become the first African American “Helen of Troy” at the Rose Bowl Parade). Ambitious and wanting to expand her horizons, Wene applied for and received, sight-unseen, a position with the Department of Agriculture in Washington D.C. Exposed to a bright life in Harlem, New York, she met powerful Black artists. They inspired her. In Los Angeles, on a dare, she sang for Duke Ellington and was shocked when “The Duke” offered her the gig of going on the road with his band.

In Washington D. C., she met Dr. James A. Watson at Howard University. While he expanded his medical practice, they married and started a family. In those early days, with a new husband and three young children, Wene, like most young mothers, was somewhat overwhelmed. Suddenly, her life was much different, compared to the slower and much more sheltered life she had known in Marshall Texas.

Spontaneous and zestful, she enjoyed entertaining friends at home. She liked to play cards, dance and go to the movies. When the good doctor wasn’t available, she would get a babysitter and sneak out to take her six-year-old son, James Jr.), to the movies! She visited with her friend, Jackie and Mrs. Robison, while Jackie was training at Howard University. As a kindness, Jackie taught James Jr. to swim! Jackie, Mrs. Robinson, and Wene had been friends during their shared college years, Wene at USC, while they were at UCLA.

After eight years in Washington D.C., the Watsons traveled to California, where Dr. Watson was a Captain and chief of staff at Edwards Airforce Base hospital. Meeting surgeon Doctor Robert Taylor and Mrs. Estella Taylor, the Watsons moved to Oakland where Dr. Watson helped to build a large medical practice at the Arlington Medical Center with Dr. Taylor and Dr. Benjamin Majors. Dr. Watson’s son, Dr. Henry Geoffrey Watson, now runs the center, serving the Oakland and Berkeley communities.

Most people know Wenefrett for her many notable, social and civic contributions in Oakland. With five children, James, Cynthia, Janet, Geoffrey and Gary, Wenefrett Watson was actively involved with five PTA organizations! Next was her involvement with the Links, Incorporated, an upper-middle class organization that networks their resources to look out for Black families who need support within the commonwealth, highlighting the education and social grace of young girls growing into young women. Eventually she became president of the Oakland Bay Area Chapter of the Links, Incorporated.

During her membership, Wene chaired the Links’ annual grand event which is the debutant ball. This event announces the “coming-out” of these young girls becoming young adults, ready to give back to the community. Simultaneous to these activities, Wene worked with the Oakland Bay Area Chapter of Jack and Jill of America, Inc. organization to make sure her five kids, their friends, and all Black preteen children enjoy socially appropriate activities like dances, hayrides, summer camp, going to the ballet and other fun activities. She was also the founder and president of the San Francisco Chapter of The Smart Set.

In time, she worked with city officials to help Oakland partner with Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana in 1975 as a sister city. Supporting the direction of the city, she and her husband mentored Mayors Redding and Wilson, helping them to get elected. She was appointed to the Oakland Museum Commission and made serious contributions to its development. Wene supported the arts and organized “The Black Filmmaker’s Hall of Fame Awards” at the Paramount Theater in February 1977.

As a working actor in Hollywood, James Watson, her eldest son, was a co-host with Diahann Carroll. This event propelled the NAACP to begin the Image Awards. In 1984, Wene began and ran WenTravel Agency for eleven years. She worked with many large corporations creating jobs and generating wonderful experiences as well as providing a service. She and her husband traveled the world many times and brought back much enlightenment from their exciting travel. Continuing her many works, Wene served with the NAACP and the YMCA. She continued to support political candidates for the city and state. She met Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, George Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, twice!

Her greatest contribution was as a parent to James, a father and successful actor, Cynthia, a mother and contributor of many social and political events, Janet, a dedicated daughter who assisted her in the travel agency, Geoffrey, who followed in his father’s footsteps as a father and a dedicated and revered physician and Gary, an entertainment lawyer in Hollywood. As a world traveler, Wene invited and hosted international exchange students in her home to educate them and her children about the world.

People who knew Wene enjoyed her sparkling humor and joy for life. Friends and strangers alike, also could find themselves on the short end of her very candid rebuke or opinion. She was an honest and direct person when she spoke to you. Wene Watson was a bright and gregarious woman. Everyone who knew here felt better about themselves because of her. She was a devoted wife and mother. In the film “It’s A wonderful Life”, Jimmy Stewart’s character wonders if being born made any difference or gave anyone value. To everyone who knew Wenefrett Watson, imagine that she had not been in your life. Her value is in the love and appreciation you feel when you think of her. Thank God she was here.

Wene is survived by three sons and a daughter, James Watson, Cynthia Arnold (Larkin), Henry Geoffrey Watson (Carolyn), and Gary Watson. She is also survived by five grandchildren, Catherine (Max), Sara, Bryan, Angela, and Richard, and two great grandchildren and a niece and nephew, Jackie Jackson (Warren) and Wendell Phillips, along with a myriad of other family members, loved ones, and many friends. Wene was preceded in her heavenly journey by her husband James A. Watson, M.D., daughter Janet Watson David, her granddaughter Tiffany Washington (Cynthia) and her grandson Henry Geoffrey Watson, II (Geoffrey & Carolyn).

Wenefrett P. Watson will be laid to rest at Mountain View Cemetery on Friday, November 26, 2021, with services held at the Church By the Side Of the Road, 2108 Russell Street, Berkeley, CA at 1:00 P.M. (COVID-19 Protocols Observed). For more details and in-person/Zoom registration go to www.CBSOR.org/announcements.

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Oakland Council Seeks Racial and Gender Equity in Hiring for City-Funded Construction Projects, Part III

‘I don’t see Black people working on projects in Oakland,’ was a common comment by town hall meeting participants “(And) we have to have more discussion and focus on the lack of Black presence in the development projects,” said another.

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Community members attend a town hall meeting at the San Antonio Senior Center in the Fruitvale District to discuss racial disparities in hiring African American workers and contractors on City of Oakland building projects, Monday, Aug. 19, 2019. Photo by Ken Epstein.

City held town hall meetings to hear experiences of local residents working in construction

By Ken Epstein

The Oakland City Council is developing policies and practices to overcome barriers that prevent the hiring of African Americans and women on building projects that are funded by taxpayer dollars.

The Council is beginning implementation of a recent report from the city’s Department of Race and Equity. The report was produced in response to a request of building trade unions for a citywide Project Labor Agreement (PLA) that would guarantee most city construction jobs to members of their unions.

The Council voted in October to create a task force to gather community expertise to adopt new policies to promote equity in city-funded construction employment. The task force has not started yet, according to City Representative Karen Boyd.

So far, 10 of 28 building trades unions have submitted data on gender, race and ethnicity of their members. Of the unions that reported, 2% of current trade union members are female and 5% are Black.

To get to the present stage has already taken several years of intensive efforts by city staff, nonprofits and community groups who wrote the city report, “Improving the Effectiveness of Project Labor Agreements.”

Some of the work that led to the final report included holding town hall meetings to hear opinions and concerns of people involved in the building industry: construction workers, representatives of the building trades unions, small contractors, and community advocates.

The town hall meetings were held between June and September 2019, sponsored by the city’s Contract and Compliance Division and the Department of Race and Equity at five different locations throughout the city. A summary of these town halls was prepared by Junious Williams Consulting.

The town halls heard first-hand what participants see as “barriers to training, employment and contracting for Oakland residents in city-involved construction projects, especially for those who live in Oakland neighborhoods (and) experience negative disparate impacts in terms of access to training and employment,” according to the summary report.

One of the major themes were concerns about the “behavior and commitment of the building trades unions.” Community members said the unions, “(h)ave not been forthcoming with data on the racial composition of their membership” and proposed that “the city should not engage in negotiating a PLA/CWA (Project Labor Agreement/Community Workforce Agreement) unless the unions are willing to change their stance around data on membership and their practices, which participants saw as barriers to employment for Black workers and other Oakland residents,” according to the summary report.

‘I don’t see Black people working on projects in Oakland,’ was a common comment by participants “(And) we have to have more discussion and focus on the lack of Black presence in the development projects,” said another.

Several people mentioned that past job-producing efforts have too often stressed entry-level jobs and not top-paying, journeyman positions. “(There is) too much focus on pre-apprentice and apprentices. (There) needs to be more focus and discussion on how to increase work for journey people.” Journey people generally have additional skills and licensing and are better paid.

Some of those attending the meetings were concerned that the building trades unions function as a closed club. “The union behavior sounds like you are saying ‘I can set up a fraternity and only the people I say yes to can join.’ This should be enough to say no to a PLA,” said one speaker.

Past agreements have required certain percentages of Oakland residents to be hired on jobs, but contractors have often sidestepped the rule. “Some people complained that contractors have rented apartments near their project sites to bring in non-resident workers who are counted as Oakland residents for compliance purposes,” the summary report said.

Participants also discussed the barriers for small contractors, who are often non-union but employ the overwhelming majority of Black and women workers who obtain jobs in construction.

Barriers facing small contractors include obstacles to obtaining performance bonds, insurance and access to capital. The city needs to have “carve outs for small, non-union contracts,” which includes breaking up the scope of work to be manageable for smaller companies (and to) unbundle contracts to make them accessible to smaller companies,” the summary report said.

One of the most consistent comments was that strong policies would not be enough; the city must match the policies with strong monitoring and enforcement of any labor agreements.

“Whatever agreement (there is) must have strong teeth (sufficient staff) to deal with companies that do not follow the rules,” the summary report said.

This is the third of a series of articles on Project Labor Agreements and racial equity analysis.

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