Robert Watkins was six years old in April, 1934, when his sister Daisy was assaulted by a neighbor who she had to fight off with a butcher knife. He may have watched Daisy being beaten or seen her stabbing the man. He would certainly have seen the blood in the kitchen. If he had been old enough to read the short, lighthearted report that appeared in the paper the next day, he might have wondered why it had treated the attack like a joke. If he had read the paper every day, he’d have soon realised that that was how it reported most incidents of violence involving colored people.
Robert was the youngest of seven children, many of whom were in trouble with the law throughout their lives. Daisy went on to run a moonshine joint in her house in the fifties; Charles and Richard were repeatedly arrested for stealing coal throughout the thirties; Charles robbed a café in 1939; Richard was arrested for window peeping in 1945 and beat Jessie Ashe to death in 1951 in an argument over $2; and Maria, the oldest sister, shot Eloise McClinton dead in a drunken argument in 1970.
Robert was arrested when he was sixteen. One August night in 1944, at about half past two in the morning, he and three other boys followed a Polish tin mill worker called Joe Kolakowski onto the Mahoning avenue viaduct, where they beat him up and robbed him of $18. When the description of the group was broadcast later that night, a young patrolman called James Brown—“also colored”, noted the paper—remembered seeing “a suspicious quartet” in Moravia street just after the incident, and he and another officer picked them up within the hour. All four pled guilty the next day.
That was the start and end of Robert’s criminal career. Years later, when New Castle’s economy began its long, terminal dive after the Korean war, when the factories shut down and jobs got scarce, Robert headed to Sacramento, California, leaving his family behind him. He never went home again.Sources: New Castle News (3 May 1934 “He Wields Poker; She Uses Knife”; 3 July 1936 “Coal Thefts Lead To 30-Day Jail Trip’; 1 July 1937 “One In Hospital; One In City Jail; Following Quarrel”; 9 Dec 1938 “Nab Trio Today For Stealing PRR Coal”; 23 May 1939 “Two Arrested In Long Ave Café In Early Morn”; 19 Feb 1940 “Marriage License Applications”; 15 Feb 1943 “Plan Prosecution For False Alarm”; 16 Aug 1944 “Quiz Robbery Suspects Here”; 17 Aug 1944 “Four Plead Guilty To Viaduct Robbery”; 8 March 1950 “Deaths of the Day”; 15 May 1951 “Murder Charge Will Be Placed”; 22 December 1970 “Marie Hill innocent”; 12 Jul 1975 Deaths Of The Day)