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placeholder Couple who broke color barrier wed 60 years

Activist sees consumerism in tar sands mining

Why I became a priest: ‘My heart was restless and longing for something else’

Diocese offers free, dignified committal of uninterred cremains

Ethicist urges caution after study on brain activity of ‘vegetative’ patients

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Mormon history began in 1830 under founder Joseph Smith

World Day of the Sick

Boys encouraged to raise their voices in song

High schools offer summer school, camp programs

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placeholder March 8, 2010   •   VOL. 48, NO. 5   •   Oakland, CA

LEFT: Leon Watson and Rosina Rodriquez were married at St. Elizabeth Church in Oakland on March 18, 1950. Franciscan Father Roderick Postada officiated. RIGHT: The Watsons renewed their marriage vows on their 50th wedding anniversary. They will celebrate their 60th anniversary at Oakland’s St. Benedict Church on March 14.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE WATSONS
Couple who broke color
barrier wed 60 years

Leon Watson loved Rosina Rodriguez and wanted to marry her. He shyly proposed marriage by making a recording of his voice at a local Oakland market, professing that he couldn’t live without her. The year was 1949.

1947 suit by
Catholic couple ended California’s ban on interracial marriage

By Sharon Abercrombie
Staff writer

In October 1948, the California Supreme Court, in Perez v. Sharp, overturned the state ban on interracial marriage by a majority of 4 to 3. Justice Roger Traynor, in his majority opinion of support, cited the Catholic Church’s support of marriage as an exercise of religious freedom. Justice Traynor wrote that, in fact, interracial marriage went beyond religion, saying marriage to the person of one’s choice is a “fundamental right.”

The California Supreme Court decided in favor of interracial marriage after a Los Angeles Catholic couple, Andrea Perez of Mexican descent and her African American fiancé, Sylvester Davis, tried to get married in Los Angeles County, but were refused a marriage license by the county clerk.

The couple took their case to attorney Dan Marshall, who helped them sue in order to marry on the basis of religious liberty. In 1947, Marshall filed their suit against Los Angeles County, based on the claim that their right to marry was part of the nation’s guarantee of freedom of religion because the Catholic Church supported their desire to marry.

In his opinion Traynor cited the couple’s lawsuit argument “that the prohibition to marry prohibits the free exercise of their religion and denies to them the right to participate fully in the sacraments of that religion.”

He rejected claims that racial mixing was bad for the public welfare and declared the right to marry was “as fundamental as the right to send one’s child to a particular school or the right to have offspring.”

In its decision, California’s Supreme Court thus joined New Mexico and the state of Washington in championing the right of interracial couples to marry. New Mexico had changed its law in 1866 and Washington in 1868.

It wasn’t until 1967, in the Loving vs. Virginia decision, that the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren unanimously declared anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional nationwide. At the time of the decision, restrictions on interracial marriage were still being enforced by 20 states.

Had this young couple (he was 21, she was 20) met two years earlier and fallen in love, marriage would have been impossible in California. Watson is African American and Rodriguez is Hispanic. Until 1948, interracial marriage was against the law in California.

But their budding romance was blessed by the October 1948 decision of the state’s Supreme Court, striking down the ban on interracial marriage.

Wedding bells rang for the couple on March 18, 1950, in St. Elizabeth Church in Oakland’s Fruitvale District. Their ceremony was a religiously groundbreaking event. Leon Watson and Rosina Rodriguez were one of the first interracial couples to get married in a Catholic church in the East Bay.

Franciscan Father Roderick Postada was the officiating priest. “We were married at one of the side altars because Leon wasn’t Catholic then,” recalled Rosina Watson.

Even before their 1950 wedding, Watson and Rodriguez were groundbreakers, espousing social justice and racial causes both locally and nationally.

Watson, a native of Mississippi, moved to Oakland after graduating from high school in 1946 to live with a relative and seek a better life away from the deeply hateful and dangerous prejudice of the Deep South.

Rodriguez came to Oakland in 1948 from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to stay with her sister, Ruth, who was active in the local chapters of Women for Peace and the Civil Rights Congress. She quickly introduced Rosina to both groups.

Rosina soon met her future husband at the Civil Rights Congress, a progressive activist group which was pressing for the hiring of black bus drivers in the Oakland transit system and Greyhound. They succeeded in their efforts.

There were blacks, whites, Hispanics, and other nationalities all united for the same causes, said Rosina Watson. They organized pot luck dinners and dances at one another’s homes. “We were in our own world,” she said. Only rarely did members venture outside these protected venues to go to movies, remembers Leon. He and Rosina did, however, see a few shows in Alameda because, theoretically, “mixed people could go to movies.” But they soon gave it up. “We’d get funny stares,” he said.

“We were more comfortable being in our organizations, socializing there,” his wife added.

Another interracial couple in the Civil Rights Congress became two of their best friends and supportive allies. Bill Lowe, a black man, and Jeanne Tobey, a white woman, had married six months before the Supreme Court decision. They had eloped to Vancouver, Washington, spending less than a day there before taking a sleeping car back to Oakland.

Fortunately, although California then forbade interracial marriages, the state would not prosecute returning newlyweds under anti-miscegenation laws, as long as they got married in Washington or New Mexico, where interracial marriages were already legal.

Of her own marriage proposal, Rosina said she was initially “taken back by it.” She agonized briefly, worrying about “the long stretch.” But she soon stopped fretting, realizing “that we were surrounded by so much love and understanding that the outside world did not matter. Leon and I saw how happy Bill and Jeanne were, so we said, ‘why not?’”

Rosina’s father, however, was not pleased. He agreed to give his daughter away, “but I think he really came from Santa Fe to talk me out of it,” Rosina said. His plan didn’t work.

After the wedding, the couple lived under the radar, so to speak, renting their first few apartments from close friends in the Civil Rights Congress. When they finally decided to buy their own home on 77th Avenue in Oakland, they began to see prejudice in action. Whites moved out of the neighborhood.

During the next few decades, the couple continued their racial justice work, petitioning door to door and contacting their representatives on behalf of the defense of Angela Davis and the conviction of Emmett Till’s murderers.

Davis, a feminist professor, was tried and acquitted of suspected involvement in the Soledad Brothers August 1970 abduction and murder of a Marin County judge. Emmett Till was a 14-year-old lad murdered by whites in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The main suspects were acquitted but later admitted to the murder.

As the Watsons grew busy with their young family, they drifted away from their social justice activities. But they continue to be there in spirit. “We’re for love,” Leon says.
The couple remain in the 77th Avenue home where they raised their three children, Jose, Jorge, and Lucia. Jose lives in Oakland, Jose in Brentwood and Lucia in Hercules. The couple has several grandchildren.

Leon worked for the Naval Air Station as a clerk typist during World War II, later moving on to employment at an Oakland company that made refrigerator units. After a two year stint in the Marine Corps in 1954, he returned to work at his old job. He also worked for a time at the IRS.

In 2003 he retired from his position as a patient services technician at Oakland’s Highland Hospital. Rosina held a series of positions as a typist, later going on to become a Spanish language translator for social workers at Children’s Protective Services of Alameda County.

The Watson children grew up on stories of their parents’ youth and activist years. Rosina remembers one of their family visits to Mississippi. “When our children first visited there as teenagers, Jose had an eerie feeling when we passed so many magnolia trees. He could envision black men hanging from them because their father had told them that in older days, blacks were hanged from them and the smell from the magnolia tree blossoms would hide the stench of decaying bodies.”

Leon and Rosina Watson remain active parishioners of St. Benedict Parish in Oakland. He is a lector and a Knight of St. Peter Claver. On March 14, they will mark their 60th wedding anniversary with a celebrative lunch at St. Benedict Parish Hall, following the 11 a.m. Mass.

 
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