Antislavery Lecture by James Watkins- Advertisement Poster.
14 June 1853
James Watkins, originally named Sam Berry, was born in 1821 on a slave plantation in Maryland. His book, ‘The Narrative of the Life of James Watkins, Formerly A “Chattel” In Maryland, U.S.; Containing an Account of His Escape From Slavery, And His Subsequent History’ is an important document which supplies some details about Birmingham’s antislavery scene in the 1850's. It also helps to explain why a number of ex-slaves arrived from America to England in the mid-nineteenth century.
Watkins’ life story is both dramatic and disturbing. A slave from his birth, his narrative tells us that at around the age of twenty he made his first attempt at escaping to the non-slaveholding North, setting off for Canada carrying only a walking stick, a three day supply of cornbread, and a “dirk,” a small hand-held weapon often used by escaping slaves. On the third day of his escape, he was recaptured and returned to the plantation. As punishment for his actions, he was whipped; and in order to ensure he would not attempt the escape again, was forced to wear a metal yoke with two bells on it for three months. It would be this experience that explains the poster illustration that Watkins used to advertise his later antislavery talks.
Watkins narrative tells us he finally escaped from the plantations of the American South in 1844. Later in 1851 he was forced to flee America entirely, leaving behind his family in the process. This was due to the passing of a ‘Fugitive Slave Law’ which stated that any slaves found hiding in the North would be physically forced to return to their masters in South. With nowhere left in America that was safe to hide, many escaped slaves now sought to travel to England, where they would not be threatened by ‘slave catchers’. After his arrival in England in 1851, James Watkins traveled throughout England raising funds and giving speeches on the evils of slavery.
James Watkins and Birmingham
As the poster shows, James Watkins gave antislavery lectures in the West Midands. However, unlike Frederick Douglass, who passed briefly through Birmingham on his own antislavery lecture tours, there is one published version of James Watkin's story that suggests he also decided to try to settle in Birmingham.
This information only appears in the third edition of his autobiography, published locally in 1852-1853. The crucial chapter 'In England' goes into detail regarding the people he met in Birmingham, including the figure of Joseph Sturge, of whom Watkins writes, “Of course the Society of Friends, who have always been friends of the slave, received me with their usual kindness: amongst whom I must mention that benevolent gentleman Joseph Sturge, Esq.”.
Yet- besides the newspaper advert Watkins appears to have placed in the Birmingham Gazette- further sources of evidence of Watkins’s life in Birmingham are scarce. Did Watkins exaggerate the story of his relationship with Birmingham in order to sell more copies of his narrative in the town? Adding further uncertainty to the story, we know that Watkins also published two other editions of his narrative, that show he could change his message in order to appeal to different local communities. It is quite possible that Watkins returned to America after the civil war. Nevertheless, Watkins narrative widens the debate about the role that black abolitionists played in Birmingham:
“in closing my account of Birmingham” he tells us, “I must again say that I have found more heartiness in their sympathy- more earnestness in their desire to forward my interests, and more friendliness at their firesides than in any town I have seen.”
Note: This image is used by kind permission of the Worcester Record Office where it is stored.
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Source: Worcester Records Office
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