The 2010 U.S. Census recorded 41,009 black Americans with Watkins as their last name. That represented 32% of the total of 127,083 entries.
This article tracks their numbers in the census since the Civil War. We also look at historic African American people named Watkins.
We end with a review of early records of black military service in the United States.
After The Civil War
The 1870 census was the first survey after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1850 and 1860, only free African Americans were recorded in the census. The many enslaved were omitted.
From 1870 onward, all black Americans were included.
5,658 people named Watkins were recorded in the 1870 census as black and 820 as mixed.
There was a total of 19,404 people with the name.
Watkins In The 1900 And 1940 Census
The mixed category was dropped from the census in 1900, so we just need to look at the black numbers this time.
The 1900 census recorded 10,454 people with the last name Watkins as black within a total of 35,165 that year.
By the way, the mixed category returned in the 1910 and 1920 censuses. It was dropped again in 1930, but replaced with extra categories for colored and non-white in a way that seems confusing now.
This changed again in 1940 and we can simply focus on one black category.
The 1940 census recorded 16,127 people named Watkins as black within a total of 64,066.
Historic Black Figures With The Watkins Surname
Here are some notable African Americans in history with Watkins as their last name.
- Born: 1948
- From: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
The Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who rode on segregated buses in the South from 1961. They sat in mixed groups to challenge seating segregation. If they weren’t arrested on the bus, they would disembark and sit in segregated cafes and terminals.
The activists endured violent arrests from local police who would also let gathering mobs attack them. Many of the Freedom Riders were young college students.
Hezekiah Watkins was thirteen when he saw the television footage of the ill-treatment of Freedom Riders in Birmingham, Alabama. When the protest group was due to arrive in Jackson, his mother told him to stay indoors.
He snuck out with a friend and they cycled downtown to the Greyhound bus station to see the action. But the Riders had already been arrested. Watkins and his friend continued the protest with youthful exuberance by drinking out of whites-only fountains on the street.
But when Watkins went inside the bus station, he was arrested and taken to Parchman Prison. His arrest made him the youngest Freedom Rider. He was eventually released under the direction of President Kennedy.
Watkins became a lifelong activist and was arrested over one hundred times with others like Dr King, Medgar Evers, and John Lewis.
William J. Watkins
- Born: 1803
- From: Baltimore, Maryland
- Died: 1858
Although Maryland outlawed black education, William Watkins attended the Bethel Charity School, founded by the black educator Daniel Coker. Watkins became a teacher at the school as well as being a church minister.
Watkins was an abolitionist who wrote extensively against slavery and colonization. He wrote for black newspapers like The Liberator, Freedom’s Journal, and Frederick Douglass’s The North Star. He became an agent for The Liberator.
His son, Willliam J Watkins Jr, also became an abolitionist. As well as having eight children, he took in his niece when she was orphaned. Frances Watkins Harper went on to become a leading poet and suffragist.
Influence of the Liberator
“The Liberator” was a prominent abolitionist newspaper in the United States during the early to mid-19th century. It was based in Boston, Massachusetts, and was known for its strong stance against slavery.
Several notable black abolitionists wrote for the newspaper or supported it in other ways.
- Philip Bell and Benjamin Roberts wrote for the paper before establishing their own.
- John Coburn was a wealthy black businessman who placed advertisements in the paper.
- Maria Miller Stewart’s speeches were published in the paper.
Watkins In Black Military Records
Military records are a rich resource of for family history research. Here are examples of the Watkins surname from three different military services:
- Buffalo soldiers
- Black civil war sailors
- Tuskegee airmen
Five regiments for black soldiers were formed during the Civil War. They were known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
Their records are part of the national archive of military monthly returns. The information includes the year and place of birth, where they enlisted, their occupation, and their height.
One of the earliest military entries for Watkins was in February 1867. Meyer Watkins was a Private in the Tenth Cavalry. He was stationed in February 1867 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
One of the later entries was in February 1915. Hugh Watkins was a Private in the Tenth Cavalry.
You have to create an account on either website, but you do not need to pay for the Buffalo Soldiers archive.
Black Civil War Sailors
The National Parks Service has a free archive of African American sailors during the Civil War.
The information includes their age, height, rank, occupation, and where and when they enlisted. It also includes every ship that they served on.
You can search the database on the National Parks website.
One of the earliest entries for Watkins was for Daniel Watkins from Richmond, Virginia. He enlisted in July 18 1863 at James River when he was aged 22.
The record shows that Daniel was assigned on April 1 1864 to the ship Memphis.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Laborer/Farmer. His naval rank was Landsman.
“Landsman” was the lowest rank at the time and was given to recruits with little sea experience.
One of the later entries was for a sailor who enlisted at Norfolk in November 2 1863. Regenis was aged 17 and was from Portsmouth, Virginia.
He was assigned to the ship St. Lawrence on March 31 1864.
His occupation before enlisting was as a Laborer. His naval rank was 1st Class Boy.
“1st Class Boy” was the rank given to young men who enlisted when they were under eighteen.
The Tuskegee Airmen were military personnel who served at the Tuskegee Army Airfield or related programs.
Nearly one thousand black pilots graduated from the Tuskegee Institute. They flew single-engine fighter planes or twin-engine bombers. 352 fought in combat.
Edward Watkins graduated from the Tuskegee Institute in September 1945. He qualified as a fighter pilot. Edward was from Freeman, West Virginia.
Edward Watkins came from Omaha, Nevada. He graduated in October 1943 as a fighter pilot.
You can find a full list of graduate pilots in our list of Tuskegee Airmen.