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Still a Watkins on Watkins Street

By Elaine Weeks


After discovering the previous story in Charlotte Bronte Perry’s book, “The Long Road Home,” I wondered if indeed there still was a Watkins on Watkins Street after forty years. I looked up the name in the Windsor phone book and, lo and behold, there was a C. Watkins at 375 Watkins, the very house that Homer Watkins had built.

“Yes,” said the woman who answered, “I’m Charlotte Watkins, Homer Watkins daughter.” She sounded almost as if she was expecting my call. I explained that I was planning a story to commemorate Black History month. Would she be interested in an interview?

A few days and one major winter storm later, I was slowly cruising up Watkins street looking for Charlotte’s house and there it was – looking somewhat as I imagined – a neat and trim blue frame house about 80 or 90 years old. I was excited – it wasn’t every day that I meet someone with a street named after him or her!

Charlotte Watkins is the great great granddaughter of Carolyn Quarreles, the first run-away slave to arrive in this area. Carolyn was the daughter of a slave and a slave master. She could pass for white
and she became the mistress’ first slave. She was taught how to do lace which was something of an honour. She had very long hair and was caught by the mistress looking at herself in the mirror. Her hair was cut off in punishment.

Carolyn ran away, landing first in Wisconsin and, after a long, hard journey, managed to make her way to freedom in Canada in 1840. She married a man named Arthur Watkins whose family had come up here through Chicago. Freed slaves were deeded 300 acres of land by Queen Victoria and Carolyn and Arthur received their share in the southern end of Sandwich. They farmed it and built a house, probably in the 1860s, which still stands.

Charlotte has a granddaughter who looks much like Carolyn. She is the model for a bronze statue that is being made of Carolyn for permanent display in Wisconsin. A book about Carolyn’s life is being written and it will parallel her life with Charlotte’s, who had various hardships due in part to being of a generation that grew up with overt racism and prejudice.

“I remember when I was a little girl, my mother tried to explain to me why I wasn’t invited to a white classmate’s birthday party and everyone else was,” recalled Charlotte who was the only black child in the class. “How do you explain prejudice to a child?”

When she got older, Charlotte’s father told her that in order to get ahead in this world, she would have to do what he did. “He was very ‘Uncle Tom’,” explained Charlotte. “He knew that in order to get what he wanted, he would have to act subservient. He was manipulative and used his intelligence. As a result, he was the first black person at the Power House at Ford’s.”

But Charlotte was a rebel. She remembers one particular incident when she was travelling in the States. “I was in the Cincinnati railway station and a man with a baby told me to ‘Get out of the way, nigger.’ In so many words I told him I would not. He stomped his foot and said ‘What did you say?!’ I took off and ran across the station not knowing what he would do to me.”

As a black person in medical transcription — a white field in the 1950s – Charlotte faced many obstacles. She was told that black people would not be able to learn the medical terms. “It was very difficult but I knew I had to do it. I was divorced and had four children to raise. I was determined not to go on welfare.” Thoughts of what her great great grandmother went through helped inspire Charlotte to persevere. And thoughts of her mother, who had worked as a servant kept her going too. “I wasn’t going to answer to anyone’s bell,” said Charlotte grimly.

When her children were small, Charlotte took them with her to work. They helped her with stapling or photocopying. “They all have excellent work ethics now,” she smiled.

What Charlotte really wanted however, was to pursue her love of music. A talented pianist and singer, she had hoped to travel to La Scala, Italy when she was a young mother but family obligations held her back.

At present, Charlotte continues her work as a medical transcriptionist part-time and devotes a great deal of time to her piano and voice students as well as to her various grandchildren.

She preferred not to be photographed but allowed me to snap a picture of her beautiful grand piano. “I bought it years ago from the daughter of a chemist in Indian Village [in Detroit]. She was an only child and had nothing to call her own except this piano. She sold it to me for $450 so she could elope.”

Charlotte Watkin's legendary grand piano with lace curtains behind. All windows in the house were to be covered in lace in memory of her ancestor, an escaped slave who had been taught how to make it.

Charlotte is the only person in the area now bearing this historic family name, although, she said, “My children have talked about changing their name from Maxie to Watkins.”

A daughter lives next door. Who knows? Maybe there will always be a Watkins on Watkins Street.


 


 

 

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