Bernard C. Watson

Ernesta D. Ballard
Lorene Cary

An educator by training, Watson’s passion for learning and justice have made him a leader in the fields of education, the arts, city planning and philanthropy. During his distinguished career he has been a professor, a public school and university administrator, and the head of a large foundation.

W atson was born in Gary, Indiana where his father had moved the family to work in a steel mill, a good job for a man with only a few years of schooling. In contrast, his mother, who had taught high school, was a college graduate who came from a family where education was prized. She passed on her love of learning to her son, who earned a bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science at Indiana University (1951), a master’s degree in Educational Administration at the University of Illinois (1955), and a doctorate in Educational Administration and Sociology at the University of Chicago (1967). However, even with scholarships, Watson had to work full-time in a steel mill for nearly two years and serve in the United States Air Force during the Korean War to afford his education.

In 1967 Watson accepted a job with the School District of Philadelphia for the opportunity to work with school board chairman and reformer Richardson Dilworth. The following year Watson rose to the position of deputy superintendent for planning. In 1970 he was hired as a professor and chair of the Department of Urban Education at Temple University. In 1976 Watson became the university’s first African American vice president, but continued to teach every semester. During this period Watson was active in the Black Political Forum, leading training sessions aimed at increasing African American participation in the political process.

In 1981 Watson became president and chief executive officer of the William Penn Foundation where he administered the distribution of $278 million to support its mission of “improving the quality of life in the Greater Philadelphia region.” During his time at William Penn, Watson supported the creation of the Avenue of the Arts, the redevelopment of the Cecil B. Moore corridor opposite Temple University, and an increase of the minority presence in higher education.

After retiring from William Penn in 1993, Watson has remained an active figure. As board chairman of the Avenue of the Arts, Watson saw his earlier vision come to fruition. He has been a leading figure in the expansion of the Convention Center. His most public role, however, has been as board chairman of the Barnes Foundation. He garnered considerable media attention for his controversial push to relocate that institution to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a decision Watson had to defend in court where he faced a suit brought by three Barnes art students. Watson maintained that a move to Philadelphia was the only viable long-term strategy to keep the institution intact.

Watson was awarded the Philadelphia Award in 2001 for what WHYY President William Marrazzo described as “steadfast leadership, involved citizenship and a lifetime of community work.” Marrazzo went on to state, “He has been a tireless fighter of ignorance and injustice, a determined advocate for educational excellence, and an energetic supporter of the arts. He is truly one of Philadelphia’s treasures.”

Reflecting on his beliefs, Watson wrote in his memoir, “As I look back over my life and try to ascertain its major themes, I believe I can identify two: my confidence in the power of education to transform individual lives and even society itself, and my hatred of injustice in all its forms, but especially racism,” (from Colored, Negro, Black: Chasing the American Dream (1997).

Keith Lyons

Sources: Bernard Watson, Colored, Negro, Black: Chasing the American Dream (Phila.,1997), Matthew J. Countryman, Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia (Phila., 2006); Denise Dennis, A Century of Greatness: The Urban League of Philadelphia’s Tribute to The Outstanding African-American Philadelphians of the Twentieth Century (Phila., 2002); “Dr. Bernard C. Watson,” Philadelphia Award ; “About: The Foundation,” William Penn Foundation,; Frederick Cusick, "Civic Leader Receives Honor,” Philadelphia Inquirer, June 12, 2002;; Patricia Horn and Don Steinberg, “Barnes: Moving is Only Solution,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 9, 2003. The following are collected from the Philadelphia Award Records: Series 2 (Recipients and Nominees), Box 8, folder 4-7: support letters. Photo: Image courtesy of Ella Jones-Brown. Comment: Watson’s enthusiasm for education and diversity was demonstrated in his hiring and treatment of his secretaries when a vice president at Temple. Of his secretaries, he writes: “Every secretary of mine has earned at least one degree. I arranged their schedules so that they had no excuse not to take advantage of Temple’s liberal tuition policies, and I even made it a condition of their employment, although I am not sure this was completely legal.” On diversity: “When I moved to my new offices in Conwell Hall, where the senior administration was housed, I found only one African American secretary. Within eighteen months, my offices resembled the United Nations. My secretaries were white and black, Hispanic and Asian.”