Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

William Watkins (b. circa 1803 - d. circa 1858)
MSA SC 5496-002535
Educator and Minister, Baltimore City, Maryland

Biography:

William Watkins was born in Baltimore around 1803.1 His father, also named William, became a founding trustee for the Sharp Street Methodist Church around 1810. Some sources list the father's occupation as cobbler, others as blacksmith.2 However, The Baltimore Town and Fell’s Point Directory for 1796 lists only one William Watkins, who worked as a blacksmith on the south side of Bank Street.3 William Watkins (the son) attended Bethel Charity School, which Daniel Coker had founded in 1807. When Coker emigrated to Liberia to help the American Colonization Society establish the new nation, the nineteen-year-old Watkins took over as a teacher.4

Between 1820 and 1828, he merged Coker's school with the Sharp Street School, creating Watkins' Academy for Negro Youth. During its run of over twenty years, the classical school annually educated fifty free African American children, of both sexes, although one source suggests up to seventy students. His students included Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (b. 1825), whom he and his wife raised after the death of her parents when she was a toddler.5 According to the abolitionist William Still, Harper attended the school until she was thirteen.6 Watkins trained his students in precise grammar and diction, demanding inflection "so signally precise that every example in etymology syntax and prosody had to be given as correctly as a sound upon a keyboard."7 He explained the thought behind his teaching style at an August 1836 lecture to the American Moral Reform Society in Philadelphia: "Give the rising generation a good education and you instruct them in and qualify them for all the duties of life . . . and then when liberty, in the full sense of the term, shall be conferred upon them, they will thoroughly understand its nature, duly appreciate its value, and contribute efficiently to its inviolable preservation."8

Watkins married Henrietta Russell, likely some time before 1826.9 Along with serving as a minister at the Sharp Street A.M.E. Church, Watkins had many other vocations, including "newspaper correspondent, founder of the Black Literary Society," and "self-taught practitioner of medicine."10

Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, Watkins remained one of the most forthright opponents of the movement to colonize black Americans in the Caribbean.11 He disagreed with his childhood mentor, Daniel Coker, who wrote home that "Africa is a good land; tell the people to come here and they will be happy if they will be industrious."12 Instead, Watkins argued that it was better to "die in Maryland, under the pressure of unrighteous and cruel laws than be driven like cattle to the pestilential clime of Liberia."13 In 1827, he wrote a letter to Freedom's Journal reminding readers that supporters of free black emigration were often proslavery advocates who wished to remove the influence of free blacks on slaves.14 He also became acquainted with William Lloyd Garrison, who worked as an apprentice at a Baltimore newspaper from 1829 to 1830. Garrison later credited Watkins with molding his views of colonization.15

Watkins anticolonization efforts intertwined with his antislavery work. In The Black Abolitionist Papers: The United States, 1847-1858, the editor Peter C. Ripley described Watkins' activities:

Watkins penned numerous anticolonization and antislavery essays, which were published in Benjamin Lundy's Genius of Universal Emancipation and William Lloyd Garrison's Liberator under the pseudonym "A Colored Baltimore" during the late 1820s and 1830s. He also served as a local subscription agent for the Liberator and frequently corresponded with Garrison, thus serving as a conduit linking Baltimore blacks with the broader antislavery movement.16
The 1830 and 1840 census recorded Watkins living in Ward 11 of Baltimore City. The 1850 census listed his occupation as "teacher." He and Henrietta had seven children living with them that year: Richard R. (b. 1827), George T. (b. 1828), John L. (b. 1831), Henry G. (b. 1834), Henrietta (b. 1836), Robert P. (b. 1841), and Lloyd N. (b. 1845). The census listed Richard, George, John and Henry as teachers as well.17 Another son, William J. Watkins (b. circa 1826), also taught at Watkins's academy before moving to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1849. William J. also produced abolitionist literature, lectured for the anticolonization cause, worked as journalist in Frederick Douglass's antislavery North Star periodical, and later followed his father to Canada.18

William Watkins moved to Toronto Canada in 1852, and opened a grocery store at 267 Church Street.19 Two noted fugitive slaves, William Wells Brown and Samuel Ringgold Ward, praised the influence on the character and morale of Toronto's black population by the immigration of black educators and reformers like Watkins.20 William Watkins continued producing antislavery editorials, which Frederick Douglass published in Frederick Douglass's Paper. Watkins passed away in Canada around 1858.21
 


1.     U.S. Census Bureau (Census Record, MD) for William Watkins, 1850, Baltimore City, Ward 16, Page 248, Line 41 [MSA SM61-128, SCM 1490].
1.     Bettye J. Gardner, “Opposition to Emigration, A Selected Letter of William Watkins (The Colored Baltimorean),” The Journal of Negro History 67.2 (Summer 1982) 155.
1.     Elmer P. Martin, and Joanne M. Martin, "Daniel Coker, Community Leader," Baltimore Sun 19 February 1998: 19.

2.     Christopher Phillips, Freedom's Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860 (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1997) 161.
2.     Carolyn Weekley, et al, ed. Joshua Johnson: Freeman and Early American Portrait Painter (Williamsburg, VA: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, 1987).

3.     William Thompson and James L. Walker, The Baltimore Town and Fell’s Point Directory (Baltimore, MD: Pechin, 1796) 55.

4.     Gardner 155.
4.     Martin 19.

5.     Hazel V. Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1987) 65.
5.     Freedman, David. "African-American Schooling in the South Prior to 1861." The Journal of Negro History 84.1 (Winter 1999) 1-47.32.
5.     Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, Setting Down the Sacred Past: African-American Race Histories (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010) 212.
5.     Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp and Kathryn Lofton, eds., Women's Work: An Anthology of African-American Women's Historical Writings from Antebellum America to the Harlem Renaissance (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010) 29.
5.     Hilary J. Moss, Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009) 113.

6.     William Still, The Underground Railroad (Philadelphia, PA: Porter & Coates, 1872) 755.

7.     Qtd. in Shirley Wilson Logan, We are Coming: The Persuasive Discourse of Nineteenth-Century Black Women (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999) 48.
7.     Qtd. Elaine B. Richardson, and Ronald L. Jackson, eds., African American Rhetoric(s): Interdisciplinary Perspectives (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2007) 33.

8.     Watkins, William, "Address Delivered Before the Moral Reform Society, in Philadelphia, August 8, 1836," Early Negro Writing: 1760-1837 (Ed. Dorothy Porter. Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press, 1995) 155-166.
8.     Bette Gardner, "Ante-bellum Black Education in Baltimore," Maryland Historical Magazine 71.3 (1976) 360.
8.     Howard H. Bell, "The American Moral Reform Society, 1836-1841." The Journal of Negro Education 27.1 (Winter 1958) 34.

9.     Christopher Phillips 161.
9.     U.S. Census Bureau (Census Record, MD) for William Watkins, 1850, Baltimore City, Ward 16, Page 248, Line 41 [MSA SM61-128, SCM 1490].
9.     U.S. Census Record (MA) for William Watkins, Bristol, New Bedford, Ward 4, Page 199, Line 14. Ancestry.com.
9.     Peter C. Ripley, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers: The United States, 1847-1858 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991) 444.

10.   U.S. Census Bureau (Census Record, MD) for William Watkins, 1850, Baltimore City, Ward 16, Page 248, Line 41 [MSA SM61-128, SCM 1490].
10.   Logan 48.
10.   Maffly-Kipp Setting Down the Sacred Past 242.
10.   Shirley J. Yee, Black Women Abolitionists: A Study in Activitism, 1828-1860 (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1992) 26.
10.   Ripley, The Black Abolitionist Papers: Canada, 1830-1865, Vol. 2 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986) 234.

11.   Gardner "Opposition to Emigration," 155.
11.   Glenn O. Phillips, "Maryland and the Caribbean 1634-1984: Some Highlight," Maryland Historical Magazine 83.3 (1988) 208.

12.   Qtd. in Christopher Phillips 188.

13.   Qtd. in Ripley 234.

14.   Qtd. in Gardner, "Opposition to Emigration," 156-158.

15.   Leroy Graham, Baltimore: The Nineteenth Century Black Capital (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1982) 112.
14.   Melba Joyce Boyd. Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Frances E.W. Harper (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1994) 37.

16.   Ripley 234.

17.   U.S. Census Bureau (Census Record, MD) for William Watkins, 1820, Baltimore City, Ward 11, Page 465, Line 7 [MSA SM61-63, SCM 2064].
17.   U.S. Census Bureau (Census Record, MD) for William Watkins, 1830, Baltimore City, Ward 11, Page 407, Line 13 [MSA SM61-83, SCM 66].
17.   U.S. Census Bureau (Census Record, MD) for William Watkins, 1840, Baltimore City, Ward 11, Page 209, 2nd line from bottom [MSA SM61-101, SCM 4715].
17.   U.S. Census Bureau (Census Record, MD) for William Watkins, 1850, Baltimore City, Ward 16, Page 248, Line 41 [MSA SM61-128, SCM 1490].

18.   U.S. Census Record (MA) for William Watkins, Bristol, New Bedford, Ward 4, Page 199, Line 14. Ancestry.com.
18.   Ripley 234, 446, 485.
18.   Christopher Phillips, Freedom's Port, 280.
18.   Moss 165.

19.   W.R. Brown, Brown's General Toronto Directory, 1856 (Toronto, Canada: MacLear & Co., 1856) 19.
19.   W.C.F. Caverhill, Caverhill's Toronto City Directory, for 1859-1860 (Toronto, Canada: W.C.F. Caverhill, 1859) 200.
19.   Ripley 234.

20.   William Wells Brown. "The Colored People of Canada." The Black Abolitionist Papers: The United States, 1847-1858 (Ed. Peter C. Ripley. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991) 463.
20.   Ward, Samuel Ringgold. Letter to Henry Bibb and James Theodore Holly. The Black Abolitionist Papers: The United States, 1847-1858. Ed. Peter C. Ripley. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. 224-228.

21.   Brown 19.
21.   Caverhill 200.
21.   Ripley 234, 463.
 
 

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