Katie McWatt’s life as an African American organizer, educator, speaker, and political activist (among many other roles) was a path of intensely dedicated efforts in support of and drive toward equality and fairness for Black people in St. Paul. Born in Minneapolis she attended public schools there and went on to earn a BA in Speech at the University of Minnesota.
A search of articles in the St. Paul Recorder yielded more than 200 in which McWatt was mentioned or featured. By 1963 she was already Chair of the St. Paul Urban League’s Advisory Committee on Minority Housing. McWatt moved from that position to eventually become their Community Services Director. She remained in that position until 1982, when the position was eliminated as a result of budget cuts.
Community service was not McWatt’s only focus. In 1964 She began a run for City Council of St. Paul, the first Black woman to do so. Endorsed by the Ramsey County DFL, other organization supported her candidacy and she won the primary. Though she lost by only a few hundred votes, her campaign opened doors to many other African Americans to run for office in the city. She remained a lifelong DFL activist. She was a member of a number of organizations through which she strived to reach her goals.
In 1968 she threw her hat into the ring to run for statewide office as a legislator. Her focus was always fair housing, stronger opportunities for education, and in one speech she railed against the lack of Black representation in politics, blaming the restlessness of the youth on this gap. “We cannot convince our angry brothers that we are being represented adequately as long as the life chance of black people in St. Paul is exactly half that of white people,” citing the high rate of infant mortality in St. Paul.
For McWatt, advocacy was not just a matter of speaking or writing about injustice. She actively engaged in sit-ins and demonstrations. People who knew her have written about her activities in direct action, including one episode in which she jumped into a trench, wearing a hardhat, to protest the low wages being paid to the workers who were digging the trench.
Within a few years of leaving the Urban League she became the Director of the Central [High School] Community Minority Education Program, serving in that capacity for many years. Her leadership in a number of organizations such as the NAACP St. Paul Chapter, the Iota Phi Lambda, a sorority of Black professional women, the Council on Black Minnesotans, among others, provided her with opportunities to broaden her reach.
Katie McWatt is honored at two public sites: In 2010 the City named the blocks of Dayton Avenue (where she and her husband Arthur raised their children) – there is a street sign at Victoria and Lexington Streets; and at the Green Line Victoria St. Station there is a carved relief portrait of her.