top of page

On the roads of Southside and around the world: On Annie Watkins and Joan Dorsey

The late Annie Watkins, one of 21 women featured in “Resilience: Women in Flagstaff’s Past and Present,” was born in Flagstaff in 1929. As the exhibit emphasizes, she left behind a legacy that would long outlive her, shaping today’s Flagstaff.

The granddaughter of freed slaves, Watkins had been known among several Flagstaff locals primarily for her work as a teacher. It wasn’t until NAU students and members of the Martin-Springer Institute and Arizona Historical Society

began delving into her life story, however, that her time registering black voters in Flagstaff’s Southside neighborhood came back to the fore.

“[Watkins’] story was just a really amazing one. We knew that she was a really amazing teacher in Flagstaff, but as we started to look into it, there came all these things she did about voting and she also had smaller stories about all the prejudice she faced at the time,” Avi Penner, a 2018 graduate of NAU and one of the students who helped research Watkins, said.

Penner, a history major, and her peers also found the amount of primary source material that existed on Watkins was abundant thanks in part to the oral history work of Delia Ceballos Mun̄oz, who is also featured in the “Resilience” exhibit. The careful documentation, in the form of interviews and transcripts, on Watkins’s life was crucial in the research component. And Penner felt that she was really getting to know Watkins.

“I really did kind of feel empathy for her,” Penner said. “And she made a huge different in just the space of a few years.”

The exhibit homes in on a few important factors that surrounded Watkins and other black Americans, one being the recent passing of the 15th amendment, designed to give people of color the right to vote. However, Jim Crow realities of the 1920s and beyond led to intimidation of black voters at the polls as well as literacy testing and other barriers, all of which translated to the disenfranchisement of many. In Flagstaff, registration was an issue as well. Many black residents couldn’t read and poverty proved a strong and far-reaching barrier. Watkins helped register handfuls of voters over the years. Although her parents were concerned for their daughter’s safety, she continued her work and that perseverance made waves into the present.

Penner, who is originally from Tucson and now works at Basis, said it was her time spent researching Watkins and others that ultimately cemented her decision to stay in Flagstaff, a place with “deep history.”

“I don’t think I would have gotten so interested in Flagstaff if I hadn’t gotten into the ‘Resilience’ project. It was cool to get so close to the town and see what made it special because I had already been here for five years but had never gotten into the really rich history of it,” she said.

Watkins retired from teaching in 1987. She died in 2013.

Joan Dorsey, the first black flight attendant for American Airlines, is represented in several black-and -white photographs on her panel in the “Resilence” exhibit. In her clean-pressed work uniform—complete with hat and brooch—she’s shown standing at the base of a large aircraft or handing passengers their drinks.

Dorsey grew up in Flagstaff’s historically black Southside neighborhood in the ‘40s, in the family home on O’Leary Street where her niece, Mayor Coral Evans, also grew up. Dorsey’s mother was a homemaker and her father, like many other early black residents of Flagstaff, worked at the Southwest Lumber Mill, which formerly stood on West Route 66.

Life for Dorsey, she said, was “wonderful” growing up in a neighborhood she remembered as diverse and community-oriented. She attended the segregated Dunbar School, now the Murdoch Community Center, which Evans helped save from demolition. Dorsey later studied at the University of Arizona, graduating in 1962. She originally intended to be a teacher, but a nudge from a friend had her deciding she’d give it a shot as a flight attendant.

Not only was Dorsey the first black flight attendant for American, she was also the first in a supervisory role with the company. In the days when air travel was decidedly more glamorous but also more sexist, Dorsey stepped into a field where none before her had tread, and getting the job, she said, was far from easy.

“I was interviewed five times. You know no one else had to go back that often. But I kept coming back and coming back,” she said. “I think it was just courage. I think also when you’re that young you just want to do what you think you should do and just get on with it.

“I’ve always enjoyed a good life, living a good life and doing what I want to do and making sure I do it with pride, energy and I don’t hurt anyone along the way. You have to be resilient, I think, growing up as an African American woman, and eventually deciding what you want to do in life.”

Dorsey’s job took her around the world. To Vietnam, flying with soldiers, to Kenya—one of her favorite places—and across the United States. One particular job had her working on the charter flight for Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president to-be, for an entire campaign season. She and other flight attendants sat down with Johnson at his ranch, where she told him about her work.

Humphrey was one of the main authors of the Civil Rights Act, something that was constantly in the back of Dorsey’s mind during her time flying with him.

“It was fighting for equality, which was what the message was. And equality was a big issue and I was right there also pursuing equality for everyone,” she said.

Dorsey dedicated much of her time helping people understand that skin color didn’t change what people wanted from life.

“It was a great time in my life,” she said of working in air travel.

But after rigorous work hours over hundreds of weeks, she was ready to retire. Dorsey worked for American Airlines in various capacities from 1963 until 1999.

When she heard she would be part of the “Resilience” exhibit, she was “overjoyed.” Now in her 90s, Dorsey helps take care of her sister, after nursing her mother in the early 2000s.

Various items are on display as part of the permanent exhibit at the Pioneer Museum including Dorsey’s majorette outfit from her time at Flagstaff High School.. Protected by a glass case, the emerald green Flag High colors catch the light that shines through the window.

bottom of page