The first Black woman to serve on a city council in Alabama was remembered as a community-minded representative, a businesswoman, a powerful political force and trailblazer.
Irmatean Watson, the first-ever representative of District 1, who served on the Mobile City Council for two terms, died April 29. She was 81 years old.
Former longtime District 1 Councilman Fred Richardson commended Watson, a pharmacist by trade, on her dedication to the community in the form of business ownership. She opened Watson’s Apothecary in 1971. Six years later, she opened Toulminville Medical Complex.
“I have a lot of respect for Irmatean Watson,” Richardson said. “She was a very influential person.”
Richardson said he remembers Watson opened a shop at the Mobile Regional Airport.
Watson was one of the city’s seven original councilors after the Zoghby Act, which was approved by referendum, did away with the commission form of government in 1985. Watson was one of three Black members of the council and the only Black woman to serve at the time.
“She rose to the occasion,” Richardson said. “She represented her district well.”
For the three Black members of the council at that time — Clinton Johnson, Charles A. Tunstall and Watson — serving wasn’t exactly easy, Richardson said.
“They took a lot of heat,” he said. “It was right after changing from the commission form of government.”
Current District 2 Councilman William Carroll called Watson “very community-oriented.”
“She was one of the first representatives in government who gave a voice to African Americans,” he said. “She took a huge first step for everybody.”
Carroll said he first met Watson as a child because she was friends with his mother. They both attended Florida A&M University.
Former Mayor Mike Dow worked with Watson during his first term in office from 1989 to 1993. In an email message, Dow said the relationship got off to a rocky start because of Watson’s strong relationship with former Mayor Arthur Outlaw.
“She would come into my office and cry over his absence from City Hall and what she considered to be her great loss,” Dow said. “I would reach in my drawer and give her a Kleenex and say, ‘Irmatean, we have to stop this crying because I am going to be here a long time and we have a lot of hard work ahead that we need to unite the council and mayor’s office to accomplish. Why don’t you start out by telling me what is important to you? I will do the same and hopefully, we can find a common ground.’’’
Dow and Watson did find common ground, Dow said, and they were able to work well together.
“Irmatean was a powerful politician, a good person and had a good heart when the politics and noise stopped, and we accomplished a lot in the next four years,” he said.
Jane Conkin, née Baxter, served on council with Watson, as a representative of District 6. Conkin called Watson a “force of nature.”
“She was smart, witty, empathetic and she listened,” Conkin wrote in an email message. “I remember she was very concerned about the open ditches in Trinity Gardens and Toulminville and she drove me around to see how bad it was. Then when I had issues with Pinehurst, she did me the same favor and drove with me on those dirt roads.”
As the first two female members of the City Council, Conkin said, the woman developed a bond.
“She and I flew to Atlanta to meet with the interior designers for the Convention Center and I swear, we wore very similar suits in the same colors,” Conkin said. “We both had on purple and green so we chose those interior colors to look like Mardi Gras. We thought it was an omen.”
Occasionally, members of council would discuss marriage issues amongst each other, Conkin said. Watson gave good advice to other councilors on the issue, Conkin said.
“When there were marital problems with some of us, she offered tons of advice,” Conkin said. “I remember exactly what she said, but none of it I can repeat.”
The two women also bonded over their relationship with Outlaw. Both worked on the former mayor’s reelection campaign, and when he lost to Dow, they were both “devastated,” Conkin said.
“We ganged up on Mike and had fun doing it, but I was the one to get in trouble,” Conkin said. “She and I definitely bonded because of our common desire to support Outlaw.”
After Conkin and Watson left the council, the two kept in touch. Conkin joked she still remembers Watson’s old telephone number by heart. Among the most important things Watson taught Conkin was her shrimp salad recipe, which stuck with her, she said.
“She was a terrific lady and I’ll always think of her fondly,” Conkin said.
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