Jon Austria/The Daily TimesAngela Watkins holds one of her dolls that is on display at the Aztec Public Library for Black History Month on Thursday.
Jon Austria/The Daily Times Angela Watkins holds one of her dolls that is on display at the Aztec Public Library for Black History Month on Thursday. (Jon Austria)
AZTEC — Angela Watkins is on a mission to promote cultural diversity in San Juan County.

When the Aztec Public Library program director isn't leading genealogy or computer classes, she serves as president for San Juan County Historical Society and board member for Aztec Museum. But to her, the most important work she does is to share her story and knowledge of black history with students at local schools.

"You can't just learn about the complexities of culture and history on a computer screen or with a video," she said. "Students need something to hold in their hands and absorb the immediacy of an object to help make the lesson a lasting one."

Watkins, who spoke earlier this month at San Juan College about diversity and cultural awareness, has designed a display celebrating Black History Month in Aztec Library's entry way. Next month, she will speak at Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington about African American history and cultural diversity in San Juan County.

Since moving to Aztec in 2001, Watkins, who was raised in Thibodaux, La., has traveled around the county making presentations to schools. She brings bags full of props that she has collected over the years — a whip from the plantation where her ancestors were slaves and sharecroppers, a colored-only public sign, advertising posters containing overtly racial stereotypes, records that list the purchasing and selling prices of slaves, samples of filé gumbo — to bring a tangible and memorable reality to the history she discusses.

"The kids love it," she said. "They write me letters telling me their favorite part of the presentation and how it helped them think about different cultures and themselves in a new way."

Watkins has been an avid researcher of her family lineage, tracing her maternal and paternal ancestors through census records that until 1870 had no listing for "Indian." Her great-great grandmother, Adeline Duncan, was listed as "mixed" by virtue of her African and Choctaw descent.

Jon Austria/The Daily TimesA collection of African-American memorabilia and artifacts collected by Angela Watkins is on display at the  Aztec Public
Jon Austria/The Daily Times A collection of African-American memorabilia and artifacts collected by Angela Watkins is on display at the Aztec Public Library on Thursday. (Jon Austria)
Watkins tries to return to Thibodaux annually to visit the plantation graves of her relatives, reconnect with herself and build on her growing body of research.

"I've spent my entire life educating people about my skin color and my culture," she said. "Giving back to the community means I will continue to wear many hats and push for more education to gather and understand the needs we have -- to understand who we are so, in turn, we can be open to who our neighbor is."

Watkins wants to continue to promote cultural heritage, particularly within the county, even when Black History month ends.

"The thing I'm working on now is a focus on this county, to see if I can't encourage people to learn deeper stories of their culture's past that might encourage greater sharing and awareness of our differences. Studying yourself and from where you are from sparks the curiosity about others' experiences and leads to greater empathy and strength."

Watkins and library director Sabrina Hood have already made strides in that direction, organizing the Aztec Cultural and Arts Festival last summer, which brought together Four Corners cultural resources in an event at the Aztec Community Center. The library is planning to host the event again this July.

"What I love about Angela is to see the faces of people she works with, whether it's in-house at the library or at one of her presentations around schools and local organizations," Hood said. "Sharing her own personal experience, combined with her passion for promoting greater awareness among cultures, gives people hope."