Mr. Watson, 89, and Mrs. Watson, 88, do not have to look any further than their own family to see how much has changed since their marriage. One grandson is married to a Vietnamese-American woman; another is engaged to a Filipino-American woman.
It is far from the life the Watsons might have imagined when she was a child in New Mexico and he was growing up in Mississippi. Today, nearly 20 percent of all newlyweds in the United States are married to someone of a different race or ethnicity, according to the Pew Research Center.
“I feel blessed that we are not unusual anymore,” Mr. Watson said. Their own block, in the Eastmont neighborhood of Oakland, has gone from being largely Portuguese to mostly Latino, with some African-American families in the surrounding area.
“At some point, people just accepted it,” he added. “Something miraculous happened.”
While dating, the Watsons had mostly stuck to social events with their friends from the local Civil Rights Congress, which was pressing bus companies to hire more black drivers. Apart from its political activities, the group had routinely held dances in members’ homes, providing the perfect place for the couple’s budding romance. (Mr. Watson, Mrs. Watson recalled the other day, was an “extremely good dancer who everyone wanted.”)
Soon after Mr. Watson proposed, Mrs. Watson’s father traveled from New Mexico to try to talk her out of marrying him. But after seeing how happy another interracial couple was in their marriage, she was not swayed. The Watsons’ marriage certificate marks the occasion in the bureaucratic language of the day — describing him as Negro and her as white.
Yet, after a celebratory wedding, the couple faced trouble: When they moved into the small home they still live in today, several white families moved out of the neighborhood. Mrs. Watson worried about what she would face at work if her co-workers knew about the marriage. (Though she is convinced it was easier to hunt for a job with the last name of Watson.)
“It was very unusual then, and I never told anyone that I was married to a black man,” she said. “I didn’t want to be rejected. I didn’t want to ruffle anybody’s feathers or anything.”
It was not until she was 45 that Mrs. Watson let a co-worker know about her marriage. She was working as an assistant at a roofing company, and the roof of their own home needed repairs. When her boss came to look at the roof, she was nervous he would fire her. He did not.
At home, the couple rarely spoke explicitly about race with their three children. They gave each a Spanish name — José, Jorge and Lucia — and the family traveled to Mexico to visit cousins. When the family vacationed in Mississippi, Mr. Watson’s sons asked him about the many magnolia trees, he recalled. He fought back tears as he told them how the trees masked the scent of the bodies of lynching victims.
At school, when the children’s classmates caught a glimpse of Mrs. Watson, some asked with bewilderment and disdain how she could be their mother. They had a standard response. “So what’s that got to do with you?” they would say. “What is your problem?”
The Oakland public schools were racially mixed, and the Watsons’ children rarely faced overt discrimination, though José Watson said that when he was a teenager, a police officer suspected he was driving a stolen car because he was black and pulled him over.
Today, his license plate loudly proclaims his identity: 1BLACKMEX. Mrs. Watson was initially surprised and worried that her son was so clearly revealing his race.
“They are very aware of how awful the blacks have been treated,” Mrs. Watson said of her children. “Never has that really changed. That’s what we would like to see before we go.”
Though they have told their story many times to curious researchers and others over the years, the Watsons do not regard themselves as pioneers. Their advice to young couples was simple.
“Do what we are doing: a lot of thinking ahead of time,” Mr. Watson said.
“And a lot of prayer,” Mrs. Watson interjected. “Just live it day by day.”