by Christine Kim
February 19, 2010
When Alaska achieved statehood, it did so during the civil-rights movement. Alaska's first black dentist set up shop in 1958, and the state's first African-American was elected to public office in 1964. Between those two events, in 1963 Carrs was the first retail store in Anchorage to hire a black worker.
Each time Richard Watts walks into the Carrs on Gambell Street, he looks beyond the aisles and sees a past hidden by the present.
"This here building always gets your eye as you pass by, because it does have a lot of memories," Watts said.
He notes the changes made since his day, remembering the store exactly how it was in the 1960s -- like him, the first of many.
"This store here built the rest of the stores -- and this here is uno, one, it's ground zero," Watts said. "This here area over here was originally produce, and the back aisle there was originally the meat department. And actually, the checkstands came right across right here, with the front door there and the back door over here."
What's also special about this store is that it paved the way for change in Alaska. Sitting in Watts' current office -- where he's now a district manager with Carrs -- you see years of hard work reflected on plaques and awards. But when Watts sifts through pictures of the past at home, he remembers a very different life.
"When anybody saw my sister and us with our parents walking down the sidewalk, they would give us money," Watts said. "Because they had never been used to seeing black kids."
Watts and his family moved to Alaska from Philadelphia in 1949, when he was three years old.
"We grew up in downtown Anchorage," Watts said. "My sister and I were among maybe 25 kids in Anchorage at that time who were black."
Watts' father was a civil-rights activist who co-founded Alaska's chapter of the NAACP in 1951. His dad noticed the lack of jobs available to blacks, which led to the chapter's first civil-rights demonstration.
"None of the workers or the employees of that store were African-American, so the NAACP got involved," said civil-rights activist Cal Williams. "Through negotiations first, and then finally through picketing and mass demonstrations right there -- picketed for some 30 days or so."
"I can remember on a weekend after, when school was out, we would spent four or five hours boycotting," Watts said.
After the picketing, Carrs hired three blacks -- the start to a more diverse staff.
"For the Carrs to be the first to hire blacks, it was very impactful," Watts said. "Because we had one boycott and got people hired, and that opened the doors for everybody else."
Watts was a junior in high school when he was hired as a bagger.
"The amount of pressure on us representing the black community, failure was not a option," Watts said.
From bagger to checker to district manager and many more in between, Watts climbed up the ladder.
"I can remember running all over the place," Watts said. "Every time I went out for carrying out groceries, I'd run back, I just -- no one was going to be better than me at bagging. I was the fastest bagger they had."
After decades with Carrs, Watts now works in upper management as the director of beverage. As he weaves in and out of aisles to the register, he sees the high-tech changes to the jobs he held throughout the years -- conveyor belts and computerized cash registers, plastic bags instead of paper.
But as Watts walks toward the back, he sees a familiar part of the store that remain relatively unchanged.
"That was a manager's office," Watts said, gesturing toward an area filled with displays of flowers. "And there was a one-way mirror from this area right here. Now we're using it as what looks like a floral department."
Forty-five years later, as he walks out through the doors of the Carrs on Gambell, Watts has a comforting feeling.
"Well, you always look back and there's a lot of fond memories," Watts said. "You'll still see 'Carrs Quality Centers' there, so that's a good feeling also."
Contact Christine Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org
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