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Meet James Watkins: Greater Manchester's Best-Kept (Historical Secret)

“Christian friends, I appear before you as a free man, not as an ox, not as a donkey, not as a horse, not as goods and chattels, but as a free man.”

These were the words of James Watkins, a formerly enslaved man, as he began a lecture at the 37th annual meeting of the South George's Street Sunday School in Dublin in 1857. This wasn’t the first time that James had delivered a lecture about his experiences of enslavement. Since his arrival from the US in 1850, he had toured the UK extensively, especially the North West of England. He set up homes in both Bolton and Manchester. In the 1851 census, his occupation is listed as “Lecturer on Slavery.” But what was it that brought James across the Atlantic? To answer this question, we need to go way back. James was born into enslavement on a large plantation in Baltimore County. James’s mother was Milcah Berry, an enslaved woman, and his father was the plantation overseer, Amos Salisbury, who never publicly acknowledged their familial connection. James was probably born around 1823. Enslaved people were not routinely given access to personal information, so he never knew for certain. He wasn’t called James Watkins at birth, either. He was named Sam Berry. When James was around 13, his father died. He was sold to another plantation owner and separated from his mother and siblings. In 1841, he tried to escape but was caught. Aided by a group of Quakers, he made a second (successful) attempt in 1841. While in hiding, he changed his name to James Watkins and fled to Hartford in Connecticut. There, he married and raised a family. Had the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act not happened in 1850, that is probably where James would have stayed. But the fear of being found and returned to his former master was too strong to stay put. In 1850, he set sail for England: “The prospect of free soil, even though a long way off at this time, made me feel delighted, and when we entered the Mersey and came into the docks at Liverpool, I could not help shouting and leaping for joy, and I sung a song of liberty. Some of the bystanders and waiters on declared that a mad black man had just landed from an American ship. They little knew the emotions I was then the subject of.” Within weeks of his arrival, he delivered his first lecture. Interest in his experiences and support for his campaign to end enslavement grew and grew. As I mentioned earlier, he forged a strong connection to the North West, Bolton especially. In fact, this connection was so strong and his impact so significant that there is a carving of his face on Market Street in Westhoughton, Bolton:



Image shows a carving of James Watkins in Westhoughton, Bolton
Carving of James Watkins in Westhoughton, Bolton.

Given the ongoing debates around enslavement and statues, I wonder why James’s name isn’t more widely known. I only came across his story about a month ago and it was purely by chance, but after a recent trip to the Science and Industry Museum, I couldn’t help but feel that they had whitewashed our industrial past.


You can’t talk about the textile industry without talking about enslavement.


You just can’t.


Thinking back, I have taught in 3 schools in Bolton. I have taught the Industrial Revolution and enslavement in these 3 schools. I was raised in this area and educated here. Nobody ever mentioned James Watkins. Not once.


It also turns out James gave a lecture in the tiny town I call home! I’m using the newspaper archives to pin down a date and location. (Wouldn’t it be great to have a plaque there?!)


Anyway, if you’d like to read James’s autobiography, you can find it in full

here.

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