Hattie Rutherford Watson (1885–1974)

aka: Harriet Louise Gertrude Rutherford Watson

Harriet Louise Gertrude (Hattie) Rutherford Watson was an educator, librarian, and prominent member of the social and education communities in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County). She and her husband, John Brown Watson, were activists for the African American community during the early twentieth century.

Hattie Rutherford was born November 23, 1885, in Rome, Georgia, as part of the Black elite in the postbellum era. She was the elder daughter of Samuel W. and Mary Anne Lemon Rutherford. Her father founded the National Benefit Life Insurance Company in 1898. Rutherford acquired an elementary education in the public schools of Atlanta and a high school diploma at Spelman Seminary. She completed her college work at Spelman College and was the only graduate from that institution in spring 1907. Rutherford married John Brown Watson on September 25, 1907.

The couple lived in Atlanta and both taught at Morehouse College in Atlanta. The American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS) chose John Brown Watson as president of Leland College at Baker, Louisiana, in 1923. Watson’s husband became president of the Arkansas land-grant institution, Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College (AM&N) in Pine Bluff, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB), in 1929.

Watson’s family background, elite education, and good marriage solidly situated her as a member of the African American middle class. The couple’s social status, combined with their commitment to Black education, politicized the marriage, and they became part of a regional and national community of African American strategists. Letters between the couple over the course of their marriage reveal a romantic relationship supported by ideological resistance to racial domination in the era of legal segregation.

Watson’s position as the wife of the president of AM&N enabled the college’s participation in the civil rights momentum of the New Deal. In 1936, Mary McLeod Bethune, Director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration (NYA), selected her as administrator of one of five NYA-sponsored educational camps for young Black women in the country. The camps provided academic and paid vocational training, healthcare, adequate material living conditions for young women aged eighteen to twenty-five whose families received relief. NYA Camp Bethune, located at AM&N College, held two sessions in 1937 and enrolled more than 120 campers. In addition to the NYA course, Watson included in her busy schedule the publication of a camp newspaper, student government association meetings, a lecture series, hosting visiting officials including, and group excursions.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded a nursery school on campus from 1934. The agency provided staff salaries for five full-time employees and a monthly allotment for food and supplies. Watson established a Free Baby Clinic, one day each week, in 1939, and it became an important addition to the nursery school. She organized an advisory council to manage the nursery school and clinic and served as its president for three years.

Watson’s professional contributions to the college also included co-founding and co-editing The Arkansawyer, the official college newspaper. As a professional librarian, she maintained membership in the American Library Association and the Arkansas State Library Association. In addition to her college activities, Watson maintained local social and community-building relationships. Her memberships included the Social and Art Club (National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs); Delta Omega Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKA) Sorority, Inc.; Jack and Jill; Pine Hill Community Club; and the Parent-Teacher Association of the J.C. Corbin High School at AM&N College. She was a member of St. Paul Baptist Church at Pine Bluff for more than forty years, and she established the John Brown Watson Sunday School at AM&N College.

Her regional activism reflected her engagement with Black education. In 1929, the Board of Trustees of Atlanta University, which included James Weldon Johnson, elected her as a member; she became an alumna member of the Spelman College board in 1931 and served on the Morehouse College board from 1933.

In April 1939, Watson and her husband adopted their only child, an infant daughter. Watson’s husband died in 1942, but she continued as assistant librarian at AM&N College and, from 1952 to 1956, completed a master’s degree in Library Science at Atlanta University. Watson retired from the college library in 1962. She remained in Pine Bluff until her death in 1974 and is buried in Atlanta.

For additional information:
Alexander, Eleanor. Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow: The Courtship and Marriage of Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Alice Ruth Moore. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

Gordon, Fon. “‘A Generous and Exemplary Womanhood’: Hattie Rutherford Watson and NYA Camp Bethune in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.” In The Southern Elite and Social Change: Essays in Honor of Willard B. Gatewood, Jr., edited by Randy Finley and Thomas A. DeBlack. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2002.

John Brown Watson Papers. John Hay Library. Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island.

 Fon Louise Gordon
University of Central Florida

This entry, originally published in Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives, appears in the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas in an altered form. Arkansas Biography is available from the University of Arkansas Press.


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