Former City Councilwoman Juanita Watkins, the first black woman to represent a Council District in Southeast Queens, died Jan. 20 after battling a long illness. She was 78.
Watkins won election in 1991 and served the 31st District for three terms. During her time in office, she funded numerous projects and organizations for the betterment of the community including libraries, school computer labs, park rehabilitation, after-school programs, senior citizen nutrition and recreation programs, local development corporations and youth service organizations.
“Watkins was a fighter for women’s rights, minority political participation, quality education, small business, and the elderly,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica) said in a prepared statement, adding that she will be remembered as “a person who was effective, compassionate and a champion of the disenfranchised.”
Sondra Peeden considered Watkins a close friend and mentor. She began working as a receptionist in Watkins’ office when she was a college student, eventually serving as her legislative aid from 1992 to 2000. Peeden attended her first Democratic convention as Watkins’ guest and she also went with the lawmaker to meetings of the State Association of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus.
“I was lucky enough to have known her,” Peeden said. “She was a great woman. As was her nature, she nurtured and mentored young people. Knowing my interest in government, she allowed me to become part of her political world.”
Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) knew Watkins from the time he was a teenager, having met her through her involvement in church life. He later watched as she entered the world of politics as a Democratic State Committeewoman and through her involvement in many different election campaigns.
“She was a warm person,” Comrie said. “She was big on nurturing, big on mentoring people, big on engaging people. She was instrumental in ensuring that women had a place in politics and government. She had a great sense of humor and was a wonderful storyteller.”
While he said he was mournful of her passing, Comrie said he took some solace in the fact that Watkins’ health problems would no longer plague her.
“I’m sad that she’s gone,” he said. “But at least she’s out of her pain now. She suffered over the last few years. It’s always sad to see vibrant people battling illness.”
Watkins was born in New York on Dec. 29, 1934 to parents, Ena and Ashton Watkins. She grew up on Dean Street in Brooklyn, was an excellent student and the first one in her family to attend college.
She earned a bachelor’s degree at the State University of New York at New Paltz. While there she also pursued her love of music, recording an album with the New Paltz Choir. Watkins went on to get a master’s degree from the Teachers College at Columbia University and became an elementary school teacher in Queens. After several years as an educator, she moved on to become an editor at McGraw Hill.
Watkins had a great love of politics and during her career, she served as a Delegate and Member to the Democratic National Convention, Queens County Democratic District Leader and Queens County Committee Chairwoman, before being elected to the City Council in 1991.
She was succeeded by former City Councilman, now-state Sen. James Sanders Jr. (D-Jamaica), who also expressed sadness over her passing. He noted how in 1999, after the city sustained severe flooding, she lobbied to have it declared a disaster area. She also successfully petitioned legislators to provide grants for the victims.
“As we deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, we shall remember Ms. Watkins as we fight to rebuild and redevelop the community she served and loved,” Sanders said in a prepared statement.
In addition to being a dedicated lawmaker, Watkins was also a woman of faith. She considered St. James the Less Episcopal Church a second home for her, a place where she could feel safe and protected. She formed lasting bonds with its clergy and parishioners, many of whom she regarded as extended family.
A funeral service for Watkins was held on Jan. 28 at St. James, followed by burial at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Glendale. Mayor Bloomberg ordered all flags in the city to fly at half-staff from Jan. 24 to 28 in Watkins’ honor.
She is survived by her mother Floretta, her niece Karla Dixon, goddaughters Janice King and Inez Nelson, Marie Carter, Tracy Dixon Barahona, and several cousins.