William Watkins


William Watkins was born in 1826 in Baltimore, Maryland, to free African American parents, William and Henrietta Watkins.1 Watkins lived in a household of nine family members including his cousin, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.  His father started his own school called William Watkins’ Academy, which “enrolled approximately fifty Black boys and girls annually and remained open for more than two decades.”2 As a young man, Watkins began to get involved in the Underground Railroad and the civil rights efforts once he moved to Boston in 1849. There, Watkins became involved with the Garrisonians during the early 1850s. In 1852, Watkins, along with Robert Morris, presented themselves to the Massachusetts Legislature to see a “charter to form an African American militia company in Boston.”3 William Cooper Nell wrote about the petition and felt that “Success will be certain, and this achieved, all other rights will be added thereto.”4 However, the Massachusetts Legislature did not follow through with any action.

Watkins was proponent of emigration and followed his father to Toronto sometime in 1852 or 1851.5 He moved to Rochester, New York, to work as an associate editor for Frederick Douglass’ Paper in 1853.  William Watkins then joined the Haitian immigration movement, working as an agent for James Redpath’s Haytian Emigration Bureau in Canada west. William Watkin’s father greatly admired the Haitian Revolution and most likely influenced his son. Watkins returned to Boston after the Haytian Emigration Bureau ended to study law.  He was one of the first Blacks admitted to the legal profession in the US, as he became a lawyer in 1865.

 Moving around New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts earned William Watkins “a reputation as a tireless, articulate, and persuasive antislavery speaker.”  He wanted immediate abolitionism, a Black militia, and integrated public schools in the city.  When he joined with Frederick Douglass, he participated more in women’s rights and Colored Conventions.  He advised northern Blacks to become more militant in defense of their civil rights.  On February 24, 1853, Watkins delivered his “Our Rights as Men” speech before a Boston legislative committee requesting to form an independent militia of Black citizens (Link to speech). Watkins also chastised white abolitionists in his lectures for their reluctance to treat Blacks as equals.6


Submitted by  Khaliq Gatson, English 110, Taught by James Casey, University of Delaware.

Edited and Revised by Samantha de Vera, University of Delaware.


[1] Mott, Lucretia et al. Selected Letters of Lucretia Coffin Mott. (U of Illinois P, 2002).

[2] Hilary J. Moss. Schooling Citizens: The Struggle for African American Education in Antebellum America. (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2010), 115.

[3] Christian Samilto. Becoming American Under Fire: Irish Americans, African Americans, and the Politics of Citizenship During the Civil War Era. (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2009). 23

[4] William Cooper Nell, Dorothy Porter Wesley, and Constance Porter Uzelac. William Cooper Nell: Nineteenth-Century American Abolitionist, Historian, Integrationist. (Baltimore: Black Classic P, 2002), 329.

[5] Milton C. Sernett. 319

[6] Michael G. Lacy and Kent A. Ono. Critical Rhetorics of Race. (New York: New York UP, 2011),144.



CuratorsDr. Christine Anderson, History Department, Xavier University and Nancy Yerian, Independent Historian

Undergraduate Researchers: African-American Struggle for Equality, Xavier University, Spring 2016 Class

The Colored Conventions Project proudly partners with national and local teaching partners and student contributors to bring the buried history of nineteenth-century Black political organizing to digital life. See attribution lines at the bottom of exhibit pages to learn more about contributors. Browse the curriculum, Colored Conventions in a Box to get involved in contributing to the CCP's online exhibitions. 

Special thanks to Gale®, part of Cengage Learning for granting permission to host digital images of newpapers in their database, 19th Century U.S. Newspaper and to Accessible Archives for permission to host digital images of newspapers in their database African American Newspapers: The 19th Century in this exhibit.