Trailblazing Journalist Who Taught Life-Lessons Passes

Emogene Watkins-Wilson in 1986

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN — One of the last writing projects that Emogene Watkins-Wilson was working on was a biography of her late husband, L. Alex Wilson, the venerable editor and general manager of the Tri-State Defender during the 1950s.

L. Alex Wilson rose to national prominence after cameras caught a white mob savagely beating him while he was reporting on the Little Rock Nine’s integration of Little Rock Central High School on Sept. 23, 1957.

Mrs. Wilson herself was a trailblazing journalist working on a career of her own during that turbulent period in the nation’s history and devoted much of her life to writing and teaching school before retiring after 35 years.

On Dec. 25, after struggling with a recent illness, Mrs. Wilson died at St. Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Woodlands, Texas, where she was living with her daughter and son-in-law, Karen Rose Wilson-Sadberry and Alonzo J. Sadberry. She was 95.

Wilson-Sadberry remembers the life that her mother lived and the life-lessons she taught. She was her parents’ only child and called her mother a good friend. She also was inspired and enamored with her gift of writing and overall humanity. 

Considering the era in which Mrs. Wilson launched her career in journalism apparently did not hamper the strides she’d made going forward. 

She worked briefly for the Afro American newspaper in Washington, D.C., and for Life Magazine between 1952 and 1954 while teaching school. She also served as the women’s editor and society columnist for the Tri-State Defender between 1952 and 1956.

During this time, when the civil rights movement was rising to a crescendo, Mrs. Wilson

Emogene Watkins-Wilson, left, spends time with her daughter and son-in-law, Karen Rose Wilson-Sadberry and Alonzo J. Sadberry. Courtesy photos

met and married the Defender’s new editor, L. Alex Wilson, who died four years later. The severe head trauma that he’d sustained in Little Rock was suspected to be the cause of death.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Wilson tarried on. She continued to teach and write. Her articles appeared in other publications as well, such as The Memphis Press-Scimitar and The Commercial Appeal. 

“She was a very committed person,” Wilson-Sadberry said. “She worked really hard, studied, made preparation, and was committed to excellence.”

Excellence was deeply rooted in Mrs. Wilson’s DNA. She grew up in North Memphis. Her father, Dr. Thomas H. Watkins Sr., was a physician who located his office at Bellevue and Jackson. 

Mrs. Wilson’s father graduated from Meharry Medical College in 1911. He was originally from Baltimore, Md. Her mother, Johnnie R. Watkins, was an educator and hailed from Tuskegee, Ala. 

Like her mother and father, Mrs. Wilson followed the path to higher education. She graduated from Howard University with Bachelor of Arts degrees in English and Journalism. 

She also completed coursework in Spanish at Howard and later studied Spanish in Mexico. This skills-set enabled her to teach all levels of Spanish to her students in high school. 

Mrs. Wilson’s penchant for writing, her pursuit of higher education, and her commitment to the community were impetuses that led Wilson-Sadberry to sharpen her own skills.

Rodney Van Miller, Wilson-Sadberry’s cousin, said Mrs. Wilson was “not just an aunt but a mother. She became the mother that I needed to pull me through.”

His own mother, Marilyn Miller, his aunt’s youngest sister, died when he was 13. He said his aunt stepped in as a surrogate and nurtured him as her own. “She promised my mother that she would look out for me,” he said.

The maternal benefits that Wilson-Sadberry enjoyed was likewise afforded to Miller, who lived with his father, Albert Miller, two streets over from his aunt in the Glenview community. 

“Her death is a chapter-changing moment in my life,” he said.

Like Wilson-Sadberry, Miller recalls his aunt’s particular skills in writing and the impact that she made in the community and in the classroom – and particularly on him when she was teaching at Hamilton High School.

“She would help me with my papers and made sure that I was on point,” said Miller, a graduate of Wooddale High School. “She taught me different life-skills that I use today. She was sweet and firm…and gave me the structure that I needed.” 

Mrs. Wilson was very influential in the classroom and the community, her daughter added. She touched the lives of many people, whom she either taught or wrote about on the pages of various publications. 

“She opened the window of opportunities for others, particularly her students,” said Wilson-Sadberry, who graduated in 1975 from Hamilton High School, where her mother was teaching English, Journalism, and Spanish.

Some students may feel uncomfortable attending the same school where a parent is teaching. Wilson-Sadberry wasn’t fazed by the arrangement. “It worked out,” she said. “We supported each other.” 

Based on her family’s pedigree, education was the key to upward mobility, which Wilson-Sadberry understood. She pursued a Ph.D. like her grandfather, who inspired her just as much as her mother had and retired from Texas A&M University in 2013 as a sociology professor.

Wilson-Sadberry and her husband have a 23-year-old son, Adam Wilson Sadberry. She wants him to understand his grandmother’s legacy and what she meant to a lot of people. 

“It’s been good to talk to him about mother and what she was all about,” she said.

A visitation for Mrs. Emogene Watkins-Wilson is Thursday, Jan. 9, from 6 p.m.-8 p.m., and on Friday, Jan. 10, from 11 a.m. to noon at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 4160 Boeingshire Dr., in Memphis. 

She will be eulogized at the church at noon on Friday, Jan. 10, and interred in Historic Elmwood Cemetery with her husband, L. Alex Wilson. M.J. Edwards Funeral Home has charge.

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