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  • Emmanuel Mehr

William Watkins, Sr., the Anti-Colonizationist Struggle, and Education in Antebellum Black Baltimore

BHW 35: September 30, 2023

A scanned handwritten letter.
Letter from William Watkins, Sr., to William Lloyd Garrison, July 20, 1835, in which he asserts, “I would forthwith challenge any colonizationist in Maryland to meet me publicly and discuss the relative merits of colonization and abolition.” [1]

 

In August 1852, at a convention of African American religious leaders in Boston, Black Baltimorean William Watkins, Sr., explained his position on the continued efforts of colonizationists in Maryland and the United States. He asserted, “If we will go three thousand miles from them, they will love us with a vengeance; but if we resolve like men to maintain our rights in the land of our birth,—rights guarantied [sic] by the Declaration of Independence, —we call forth their intensified hate.” [2] An educator, Methodist minister, and antislavery activist, Watkins was one of the preeminent Black public figures in antebellum Baltimore. [3] He focused his activism most heavily on battling against the colonizationist cause, quarrelling with both the American Colonization Society and its eventual Maryland subsidiary. Colonizationists argued that African Americans must be voluntarily sent out of the United States to Liberia, since, they argued, white supremacy meant Black people could never live in the U.S. post-slavery. Removing the perspectives of African Americans from their telling of the conversation, colonizationists argued that white prejudice towards Black people was incorrigible and thus Black people had to leave the country. Watkins publicly denounced these perspectives on a regular basis, publishing editorials in antislavery newspapers directly critiquing colonizationists active in Baltimore and nationally. In a period when Baltimore had the largest free Black population in the U.S., Watkins made clear that he believed Black Baltimoreans should be vehemently against colonization. The vast majority of free Black Baltimoreans agreed. [4] As the ideal alternative, he offered up a proposition alarming to some Americans: the complete abolition of slavery. Examining his role as an educator, minister, and activist provides important insights into his antebellum abolitionist work.


Born free in 1801, William Watkins, Sr., received his early education from Black Baltimorean Daniel Coker at Sharp Street Church in Baltimore. When Coker left Baltimore to emigrate to Liberia, the ardent anti-colonizationist Watkins was likely appalled. Nevertheless, in 1820 and at age nineteen, he took over teaching duties at the school. [5] Over the next eight years he merged the Sharp Street School with his own newly created school, eventually known as Watkins Academy. [6] Remaining a teacher while he conducted his abolitionist other life’s work, he educated generations of free Black Baltimoreans. Parents paid two dollars for each quarter-year of schooling and Watkins typically had between fifty and seventy students, both female and male. [7] This is also where his niece Frances Ellen Watkins went to school and later became a teacher. Watkins was Frances’s guardian from age three and she would later become a famous poet and activist, taking the full name Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. [8] As an educator, William Watkins, Sr., was considered astute, thorough, and an excellent disciplinarian. [9] He believed that a wholesome education was also a moral and character-building education. Consequently, he opposed teachers who focused solely on formal intellectual education. [10]


Watkins’s emphasis on moral character in teaching reflected his religious background and role as a Methodist lay minister. Religion also figured prominently in his public activism, with many of his activist arguments drawing upon Scripture. On June 4, 1831, he wrote in William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator newspaper: “Those temporising, retrograde reformers [colonizationists] are doing a serious injury to the people of color. They heed not the warning of Heaven: ‘Do my people no harm.’” [11] Given the immense significance of the church in the lives of African Americans, these arguments carried great credence. He also directly took on some of Baltimore’s other Black ministers when they spoke in favor of colonization. In 1835, three local Black ministers published a statement declaring support for colonization and claiming to speak for Baltimore’s free Black community. Watkins publicly challenged this claim, pointing out they did not call any meetings to find out the views of Black Baltimoreans on this subject. He wrote to Garrison that these ministers responded by threatening to tar and feather him. [12] Religion was by no means separate from politics or education for Watkins, it was fundamental to his ideology and worldview. [13]


As an activist, Watkins aligned himself with both anti-colonizationists and abolitionists. He served as a local agent in Baltimore for Garrison’s Liberator abolitionist newspaper, at times writing to him on complaints Baltimoreans had about their subscriptions. For example, in July 1835 he wrote, “Richard Greener has been complaining to me almost every day about what I cannot help—the non-arrival of his paper.” [14] Watkins also played a significant role in convincing the young Garrison that colonization was unacceptable while Garrison was an apprentice in Baltimore. [15] As an anti-colonizationist, Watkins correctly identified early on that, as historian R. J. M. Blackett writes, “From the beginning, blacks vigorously opposed all forms of colonization.” [16] While there were vocal colonization supporters in Baltimore’s Black elite, as we have seen, most African Americans did not want to leave their home country. Watkins also viewed the abolitionist and anti-colonizationist struggles as inextricably intertwined. As he wrote to Garrison in 1831: “we [would] rather die in Maryland under the pressure of unrighteous and cruel laws than be driven, like cattle, to the pestilential clime of Liberia, where grievous privation, inevitable disease, and premature death, await us in all their horrors.” [17] Abolition was the ultimate alternative to colonization, one that could finally give African Americans the rights guaranteed by the founding documents of the United States.


Watkins also conducted his public advocacy work in affiliation with prominent activist organizations. In 1830, he cofounded the National Convention of the Free People of Color with Black Baltimorean butcher Hezekiah Rice. This group sought to unite African Americans with a common voice. They held annual conventions from 1830 to 1835, and sporadically in the years that followed. [18] Watkins was also significantly involved with the American Moral Reform Society (AMRS), which was created at the fourth and fifth Conventions of the Free People of Color and first met in August 1837. [19] While he generally supported the AMRS, he split with its leaders on one major issue. AMRS co-founder William Whipper and some others wanted to invite white members to join. Watkins spoke out against this position, using an anecdote about how when he once saw both a Black and white man drowning, he went to help the Black man because white observers only helped the white man. He believed Black Americans needed to help themselves first, because white Americans had not proven their willingness to help their Black counterparts. [20] However, he still agreed with the group on many subjects. He particularly supported their efforts in Black education, himself speaking on this at AMRS gatherings. [21] As an educator, he continued to firmly believe that education both had a morally redemptive capacity and was key to African American success. [22]


William Watkins, Sr., left many phenomenal legacies, foremost among them the role he played in educating generations of Black Baltimoreans through the Sharp Street School and later the Watkins Academy. Also highly significant is his influence on his poet and activist niece Frances Ellen Watkins Harper along with his sons, many of whom became teachers themselves. [23] These family accomplishments are even more impressive given he directly purchased the freedom of his wife and son from local slaveholder James Carroll in 1820, for $150. Beyond his family and pupils, he was nationally highly influential in advancing the abolitionist and anti-colonizationist movements in the antebellum era. He eloquently tore apart the arguments of colonizationists. One of the most glaring contradictions he publicly emphasized was that colonizationists claimed the great intelligence of free Black colonists would be vital to redeeming Liberia, while also arguing that free Black people who remained in the U.S. would be incapable of self-control or self-support. Unfortunately, he would not live to see the end of slavery in Maryland or the United States. But he did get a taste of a land of freedom when he followed his son to Toronto, Canada, shortly prior to his death in 1858. [24] While Watkins did not personally witness American Emancipation, he played a crucial role in raising awareness of the vital importance of Black freedom in the United States.

 

[1] William Watkins, “Letter from William Watkins to William Lloyd Garrison,” July 20, 1835, Baltimore (MD), 2, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/2z10zv33n.

[2] William Watkins, reprinted in Giles Badger Stebbins, Facts and Opinions Touching the Real Origin, Character and Influence of the American Colonization Society (Boston: John P. Jewitt, 1853), 197, https://archive.org/details/factsopinionstou00steb.

[3] Bettye J. Gardner, “William Watkins: Antebellum Black Teacher and Anti-Slavery Writer,” Negro History Bulletin 39, no. 6 (September/October 1976): 624, https://www.jstor.org/stable/44175779; Christopher Phillips, Freedom’s Port: The African American Community of Baltimore, 1790-1860 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 220-221.

[4] Phillips, Freedom’s Port, 220.

[5] Gardner, “William Watkins,” 623.

[6] David Freedman, “African-American Schooling in the South Prior to 1861,” The Journal of Negro History 84, no. 1 (Winter 1999): 32, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2649081.

[7] See Hilary J. Moss, Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 115, https://archive.org/details/schoolingcitizen0000moss; Phillips, Freedom’s Port, 166.

[8] For more on Mary Ellen Watkins Harper, please see the work of Dr. Martha S. Jones. Here she explains how Harper fits into her books and work: Martha S. Jones, “Commentary: Baltimore must rightfully honor Frances Ellen Watkins Harper,” Baltimore Banner, March 31, 2023, https://www.thebaltimorebanner.com/opinion/community-voices/frances-harper-martha-s-jones-baltimore-EHGSPKF4KVGJTN3EFVSNAYWRV4/; See also: Melba Joyce Boyd, Discarded Legacy: Politics and Poetics in the Life of Francis E. W. Harper, 1825-1911 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994), 36, https://archive.org/details/discardedlegacyp0000boyd; Michael Stancliff, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: African American Reform Rhetoric and the Rise of a Modern Nation State (New York: Routledge, 2011), 2.

[9] Gardner, “William Watkins,” 623.

[10] Stancliff, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, 18-19.

[11] William Watkins, “To the Editor of the Liberator,” Liberator (Boston, MA), June 4, 1831, vol. 1, no. 23, 1, http://fair-use.org/the-liberator/1831/06/04/the-liberator-01-23.pdf.

[12] Matthew A. Crenson, Baltimore: A Political History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), https://archive.org/details/baltimorepolitic0000cren; Margaret Washington, “Frances Ellen Watkins: Family Legacy and Antebellum Activism,” The Journal of African American History 100, no. 1 (Winter 2015): 66, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5323/jafriamerhist.100.1.0059.

[13] Boyd, Discarded Legacy, 37.

[14] Watkins, “Letter from William Watkins to William Lloyd Garrison,” July 20, 1835, 1.

[15] Ousmane K. Power-Greene, Against Wind and Tide: The African American Struggle against the Colonization Movement (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 48, https://archive.org/details/againstwindtidea0000powe.

[16] R. J. M. Blackett, Building an Antislavery Wall: Black Americans in the Atlantic Abolitionist Movement, 1830-1860 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983), 48, https://archive.org/details/buildingantislav0000blac.

[17] William Watkins, “To the Editor of the Liberator,” Liberator (Boston, MA), June 4, 1831, vol. 1, no. 23, 1, http://fair-use.org/the-liberator/1831/06/04/the-liberator-01-23.pdf.

[18] Phillips, Freedom’s Port, 229.

[19] Gardner, “William Watkins,” 624

[20] See Patrick Rael, Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 49-50, https://archive.org/details/blackidentitybla0000rael; Howard H. Bell, “The American Moral Reform Society, 1836-1841,” The Journal of Negro Education 27, no. 1 (Winter 1958): 34, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2293690.

[21] Bell, “The American Moral Reform Society,” 1.

[22] Rael, Black Identity, 189.

[23] Moss, Schooling Citizens, 115.

[24] Boyd, Discarded Legacy, 36.

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