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Commitment to racial equality is central in couple’s 50 years

Etta Watkins
Etta Watkins is often at her computer.

While Etta and Happy Watkins have been opposites in some ways, their shared values of faith, family and a commitment to keep alive the message of Martin Luther King Jr. for future generations have strengthened their marriage of 50 years.

They were married Aug. 17, 1963, 11 days before King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in Aug. 28.

Happy has kept the dream alive throughout the region, giving the speech each year in January for about 25 years, Etta said in a recent interview.

“I’ve heard the speech over and over.  Each time it’s new, depending on his emotion and the crowd.  I’m never tired of hearing it.  I still come to tears, because I know it comes from the depths of Happy’s heart,” she said, pleased that their nine-year-old grandson, Ephraim, is learning parts of the speech.

“It is a dream that will go on forever.  It’s important for us to remember that we are all here and all God’s children and we have to get along,” she said.

She added that the speech fits Happy’s personality and his perspective from growing up in the diversity of the Bronx where 10,000 people lived on one block, people from many races, ethnicities, religions and lifestyles.

He was a city boy, who could go down the block to shop for ingredients for meals. He is the oldest of 10 children.

Etta was a “country girl,” growing up an only child in a family living in a rural area west of Spokane, five miles from the nearest store and needing to plan ahead for several weeks when her family went shopping.  Her parents moved into Spokane in 1954 when she was in the fourth grade.  Her first year at Grant School, she was the only African-American.  The next year there were children of two other families.

“On the important things, we are similar, believing family comes first and church life is important,” she said.

Their family includes four sons, six grandsons and one great granddaughter.  Etta takes her seven- and nine-year-old grandsons in every morning when their parents go to work.  She feeds them breakfast and takes them to Jefferson Elementary School.  After school, she helps with homework and often their parents join them for dinner after work.

Etta said the “I Have a Dream” speech has been pivotal in their lives and a shared value both want to pass on to future generations to remind people of King’s commitment to work peacefully for civil rights and of his desire to bring everyone together, not just blacks.

“The more Happy read and studied King’s speeches, the more he wanted to share them,” said Etta.  “He also quotes other speeches from King and from James Baldwin.”

Etta was adopted when she was two weeks old in Mississippi.  Her mother, Annis Batsell, a homemaker, came to Spokane in the 1940s from Mississippi.

Her father, George Batsell, came to Spokane from St. Louis in the 1920s, when there were only five African-American families in town.  He worked for 36 years, managing a gas station across from what is now the Spokane City Hall.  Later, he ran his own gas station at Browne and Trent.

At 11, Etta pumped gas and worked on cars.

“When my boys went to Grant in the late 1970s, it was more diverse,” said Etta, who graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in 1962.

Before she graduated, she met Happy, who came to Spokane with the Air Force. They married the next summer.

In 1964, she went to work for Wonder Bread and Hostess Cakes, where she worked more than 20 years in the thrift store and in management.  Then she began working with telecommunication companies as AT&T broke up—first with Pacific Northwest Bell, then American Network, Northwest Telco, MCI and Nextlink, starting in sales and working into management.  With Nextlink, she traveled all over the United States.

Because Happy also worked sales jobs and traveled with several companies, they made sure one was home with the children.

“In telecommunications, there were challenges and changes every day,” said Etta.

From her work, she’s tech savvy.  She prints out Happy’s emails, and does the family’s and church’s computer work, because Happy doesn’t touch a computer, Etta said.

“Internet opens so many doors,” she said.  “At our fingertips, we can access any information we want.  In school, I had to go to the library to look things up.”

In 2000, the telecommunications bubble burst and many companies went bust.  She retired.

In her teen years, Etta had attended Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church somewhat sporadically, she said.  The first thing Happy did when he came to Spokane was find a church.

After they married, they attended Morning Star Baptist Church until 1978.  In 1979, they went to New Hope, where he began training to be a deacon.

For a while, he was pastor at Sharon Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and then assistant minister at Calvary Baptist.  In 1990, he was called to be pastor at New Hope Baptist Church. 

Happy also worked in security at Deaconess Medical Center, where he received training to be a chaplain.  When he finished the program, he became chaplain at Holy Family Medical Center until he retired from that in 2003.  Now he is “just” pastor at New Hope and involved on many community committees and boards, helping address racism in various venues, particularly in criminal justice.

Etta said Happy led her to God.   

She had realized early in their marriage that one day he would become a minister.

At first, she was worried, not feeling she fit the mold of pastors’ wives, who wear hats and are “all prim and proper.”  Her worries were alleviated at a state gathering for new pastors’ wives.  An older wife told her to be herself.

“I do things different.  I carry a tool box in my car trunk.  If something needs to be fixed, I’ll do it,” Etta said, noting that New Hope accepts her for who she is.  “I do what I see is needed.  I may climb a ladder to change a light bulb.”

She also helps members with church dinners and has served as missionary president to “take members outside the walls,” such as recruiting people this year to prepare meals third Thursdays at Crosswalk.  Members are also involved with the Women’s Crisis Center on E. Sprague.  Over the years, they have found different ways to serve.

Etta is also involved in the church’s campaign to raise funds to expand its buildings, advising the Trustee Board on how to raise the $150,000 needed.

James, Happy and Etta’s youngest son is assistant pastor at New Hope Baptist and a counselor at the Airway Heights Correctional Facility.

Percy, their oldest, leads services Sunday evenings at Holy Temple Church of God in Christ and is starting his own business.

John is training at New Hope to be a deacon.  Paul works with Amazon in Phoenix and is going to online school.

“Being a pastor’s wife gives me a stronger walk with Jesus.  There are always surprises.  I enjoy the diverse people we serve in our church, especially seeing growth in their lives,” Etta said. 

The church includes older people who have been there many years, an influx of people in their 30s to 50s, but few younger people.   In the past three years, the church has grown from 20 on a Sunday to 35 to 40 coming, and more on the rolls.

Etta described some of her experiences.

“Racism in Spokane may not be or have been as blatant as it was in the South, but there’s an undercurrent flowing here, hard to see until you’re in the water,” said Etta.

Years ago, she said she was ignored by a receptionist at the YWCA when she went to join and she remembers a few customers making comments when she worked in the Wonder Bread Thrift Store.  The YWCA’s mission now includes eliminating racism.  Wonder Bread supported her presence in the store, she said.

However, when one grandson was recently called the “N” word, Etta was sad to realize that “we haven’t gotten beyond that.”

Nonetheless, she believes Spokane is trying and is getting better.  She believes Happy helps make a difference by giving the “I Have a Dream” speech, as well as through his community involvements to address and reduce racism.

For information, call 443-6440 or 535-1336, or email

Editor’s Note:  This is the first of several stories on African-American pastors and wives married 50 years or more.  The Fig Tree covered Happy Watkins’ story——so we interviewed Etta for this story.

Copyright © October 2013 - The Fig Tree