a Watkins on Watkins Street
By Elaine Weeks
After discovering the previous story in Charlotte Bronte Perrys
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
Yes, said the woman who answered, Im 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
A few days and one major winter storm later, I was slowly cruising
up Watkins street looking for Charlottes 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 wasnt 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
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 Carolyns life
is being written and it will parallel her life with Charlottes,
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 wasnt invited to a white classmates 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, Charlottes 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 Fords.
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 wasnt
going to answer to anyones 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.
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.