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Eileen Watts Welch

Earlier we announced the student winners of the Gilder Lehrman Research Project. Participating students researched and wrote biographies on prominent African Americans, with the top articles being selected for publication in the online African American National Biography. Working with their teachers, the students were expected to follow the same guidelines used by professional writers for the site, utilizing primary sources and scholarly publications to highlight the contributions of important African Americans in their respective communities. Here is one of the winning entries, researched and written by Alec Lowman of Charles E. Jordan High School (Durham, North Carolina).

Welch, Eileen Watts

(March 28, 1946–),
activist, educator, and business and administrative leader, was born Constance Eileen Watts in Durham, North Carolina, to Constance Merrick and Dr. Charles DeWitt Watts. Dr. Watts was North Carolina’s first black surgeon, and it was his outspoken advocacy that would serve as a catalyst for the merger in 1976 of the all-black Lincoln Hospital and the all-white Watts Hospital into a single, multiracial entity, the Durham Regional Hospital. In addition to being the granddaughter of Dr. Aaron M. Moore, one of the founders of Durham Mutual Insurance Company and Durham’s first black doctor, and John Merrick, a prominent black entrepreneur, Constance Merrick Watts was a public force in her own right, lecturing, speaking, and serving a notable term as the head of Moore’s popular Durham Colored Library. “As an adult,” said Welch in a 2004 speech, “I am much better able to understand and appreciate the accomplishments of my ancestors, of which there are many” (Welch 7). These accomplishments in business, health care, and education, would ultimately be echoed by achievements in her own life in those fields.

In 1964, Eileen Watts graduated from Hillside High School, which was, at the time, still an all-black institution. Four years later, while her father was fighting to make integration and the promise of the 1964 Civil Rights Act a reality in health care, Watts graduated from the historically black Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She left Spelman, however, with the intention of pursuing a career as an elementary school teacher, rather than choose a careeer in the medical professions like her father. Twenty-two years old, she returned to Durham briefly during the summer of 1968 to marry James “Jim” Welch; they were joined on July 13, 1968 at St. Joseph’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in Durham (New York Times, 69). It was the beginning of a long, happy marriage; in later years, Mrs. Welch affectionately related how her family “adopted” Jim (Welch 1). Shortly after the wedding, the young couple returned to their new home in Atlanta, where Welch began work. Her stint teaching the third grade was cut short, however, by Jim getting drafted into the army to serve in the Vietnam War, which forced the pair to uproot and move to Arlington, Virginia. The couple had two sons, born in 1970 and 1972, and Eileen Welch put her career on hold for a time to raise them.

However, it wasn’t long before Welch refocused on a professional career. A few years after her second son was born, she decided to start her own small business in Virginia’s Fairfax County, a move that kept her schedule flexible and put her communication skills to work. Book Art, Ltd, a for-profit bookstore, quickly grew into a chain, and it was not long before Welch began to reap a tidy profit. From this point on, she permanently altered the trajectory of her work, now focusing on her entrepreneurial talents. She began a second venture a few years later known as Publishers Network, Ltd, which worked closely with individuals and government agencies in its sale of “special-order publications.” Local officials and businessmen took note of her deft aptitude; in 1983, it was her turn to be drafted, in this case as the manager for the Reston (Virginia) Employment Service. She served seven years in this position before being recruited by the INOVA Health System, based in Falls Church. In nearly no time at all, Welch came from being a stranger in town to being a leading and popular administrator. Her employers at INOVA encouraged Welch to work on her M.B.A. in her spare time. In 1995, she received her degree from George Mason University.

Just as Welch’s plans had changed over the course of nearly two decades, so had her hometown. In 1996, she came back with her husband when Duke University offered her a position as a Director of Development for its small, ambitious nursing program. Over the next several years, she flitted through a variety of positions, from Director of Development to Associate Dean for External Affairs to, finally, Assistant Dean for Development, remaining in the same role: fundraiser. Like her great-grandfather Aaron Moore, she was not at all shy about forging partnerships and making connections, growing to be a close friend of Mary T. Champagne, the dean who “resurrected the school of nursing.” (Yee). Together, they worked tirelessly to raise funds for a new building to consolidate the nursing students and provide more training and communication with the nearby Duke University Medical Center. Proposed in 2002, the completion of the building seemed unlikely just over a year later, but like her father, Welch prevailed through iron-clad perseverance. Like her mother, Welch also cleverly utilized community connections, inheriting her mother’s position as head of the Standford L. Warren Public Library (formerly the Durham Colored Library) and involving herself as a member of organizations like the Triangle Community Foundation and the Rotary Club. Mary Champagne retired in early 2004, and the building was dedicated in 2005.

Shortly before the building dedication, in the summer of 2004, Dr. Charles Watts, Welch’s father, passed away. In the wake of his death, Welch increasingly drew inspiration from her memories of him, a fact that echoed in her speeches and activities; since her return to Durham eight years earlier, she had become closer than ever to the man she affectionately dubbed “an old-timey doc” (Cheng E12). In 2005, shortly after the dedication of the new nursing building, Watts joined the North Carolina chapter of the Center for Child and Family Health as an Executive Director of Advancement (NAAHHS). Using her connections at Duke, Welch helped to forge valuable partnerships between Duke, NCCU, and UNC, including the sharing of North Carolina Mutual company archives (Jackson). Increasingly, she turned to the press to advocate for awareness and funds for young victims of mental illness and trauma. She has also worked as an Officer in Duke’s Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Welch’s evolution from teacher to entrepreneur to administrator paralleled, in many ways, the strides and successes of more and more African American women at the turn of the 21st century. Her personal journey, like others, was inspired by the battles fought and won by her ancestors in the 19th and 20th centuries. Her achievements are significant on a national as well as a personal level. “We all have talents,” mused Welch in a 2009 interview, “and we have to use them for the best” (The History Makers).

Further Reading

  • Anderson, Jean Bradley. Durham County: A History (1990)
  • “C. Eileen Watts Welch Biography.” The HistoryMakers.com. The History Makers, 23 Jun 2009. Web. 23 Feb 2011.
  • “Eileen Watts.” National Alumni Association of Hillside High School (NAAHHS) Network. NAAHHS. Web. 24 Feb 2011. http://www.ecommercemecca.com/hillside/eileen.htm
  • “Eileen Watts Wed to James A. Welch.” New York Times, 14 July 1968, 63.
  • Garrett, Nathan. “Durham Colored Library.” Palette, Not a Portrait: Stories from the Life of Nathan Garrett. 2010. 189-190.
  • Welch, C. Eileen Watts. “Introduction of family members and history of Aaron Moore.” North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company Records. 11 May 2004. 1-8 Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

Alec Lowman
Charles E. Jordan High School
Durham, North Carolina

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