ABOLITIONIST James Watkins spoke about his slave experiences to a crowd in Rotherham town centre — 4,290 miles from where his story began.
His appearance at the Mechanics Hall on July 24, 1854, was an example of the strong connection people here felt with black men and women campaigning for the end of slavery.
James was born Sam Berry near Baltimore in Maryland in about 1823.
Like many in slavery, his birth was recorded — but only as chattel, or property, and the papers were not available to the individuals themselves.
“In 1844, when about 21, he made his successful escape,” said Steve Clark, who researched the story.
“James had tried before and knew the dangers. Enslaved people were pursued and if caught would be abused, tortured or even killed.
“On his first attempt, James was tracked down by bounty hunters using bloodhounds and was tortured on his return.
“For three months, he had to wear an iron band fixed to his head to punish and deter him — and others — from running away.”
James kept the faith and tried again — this time escaping the pursuit through many towns and villages, heading north and leaving behind his slave name in the process.
Eventually, he reached New York.
There was no slavery in the northern states — but James still was not safe because the law allowed escaped slaves to be seized and returned to captivity.
So he made a decision in 1850 to sail to England, as many other black people fleeing slavery had done.
By this time there was a network of support for those who had escaped, mainly through churches and the abolitionist movement.
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“Life was not easy in a new country but James was able to settle and provide for himself and his new family through touring the country speaking and through sales of a book about his life,” said Steve.
“He spoke in churches, usually Methodist or other independent chapels, and at halls in towns and villages from London to Edinburgh.
“There seems to have been very strong support in the industrial parts of the country and places where growing radicalism and concern for people’s rights was already rooted.
“James spoke about his own experience of brutality and the events of his daring escape, but his mission was to seek the support of people in places like Rotherham to help end slavery in the US.
“Over the time he campaigned, James spoke to thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of people.
“It looks as though James spoke once or twice here in Rotherham but he had many return engagements — for example he spoke in Sheffield four times around his visit to Rotherham.”
It is clear that people wanted to hear what he had to say and were willing to pay the entrance fee for his talks. James’ book ran to at least 19 editions.
His talks combined personal memories and details of the brutality of slavery with calls for actions such as boycotting slave-produced goods like cotton and rice from the southern plantations.
James said: “I will never relax my efforts in attempting to put down that accursed system of human suffering, degradation, and torture — slavery.”
He praised the “warm sympathies of the British people on behalf of my downtrodden and oppressed people.”
And of the UK working class, he said: “I have never found their sympathy less warm, their generosity less cheerful nor the instincts of their hearts less noble than those who are far above them in worldly wealth and influence.”
A few years before James — sometime between 1836 and 1848 — Moses Roper came to Rotherham to speak at an event thought to have taken place at Masbrough Chapel.
John Andrew Jackson spoke in Wentworth village in January 1859 and William Henry Jackson campaigned at the Mechanics Hall in January 1863, while the American Civil War was in progress.
But even after that conflict — when slavery was ended across the whole US — violence towards black people did not end.
Steve said: “Across the southern states there was an institutional refusal of rights, and violence including lynching was part of a regime that deprived people of their rights through terror.
“Black American human rights campaigners toured the country raising awareness of the abuses that were going on in the United States and that black people were still not properly free.
“Nelson Countree, Richard Sayers and York Manitery all visited Rotherham and spoke on these issues; Nelson and Richard each at the Mechanics Hall and York at the United Methodist Free Church in Greasbrough.
“The number of speakers, and the fact that some returned to speak again is an indication of the interest and support that people here in Rotherham had for the cause of abolition and human rights of black people in the United States.”
Dr Hannah-Rose Murray, of Edinburgh University, put together frederickdouglassinbritain.com to map all the known visits by black abolitionists to places in the UK and Ireland.
Dr Murray, author of Advocates of Freedom, said: “African Americans travelled the length and breadth of the country to inform the transatlantic public about slavery, racism and white supremacy.
“They published books — or slave narratives, key protest documents in the abolition movement — exhibited weapons of torture, and lectured to quite literally millions of people throughout the 19th century.
“Nearly two centuries later, we continue to fight for social justice and equality amidst a global pandemic which disproportionately affects people of colour, and continued human rights abuses against black communities both in Britain and the US, as the global Black Lives Matter protests have shown.”
Steve, who has lived in Rotherham since 1970, said: “Last year, I think most of us became more aware of black history, and the complex issues that wrap around that.
“I picked up on the internet that a number of African Americans who escaped from the southern states, rather than travelling north, came by boat to Britain, where it was safer.
“Some campaigned, which I found astonishing. And what jumps out is that they went all over the place, not just to the big cities.
“The resonance for me was that the people of Rotherham in the mid-19th century were really interested in this. It was a time when working people, the lower middle class, were becoming more politically active.
“They came out to listen, they bought books and got involved in the campaign. It’s inspiring.”
He added: “The Mechanics Hall has gone but the Old Town Hall on the corner of Howard Street and Effingham Street was built on the same spot.
“It is quite moving to think that where we can now go to buy our fruit and veg at the greengrocers where James Watkins once spoke.
“At the moment, there is no information plaque to tell people about this. Hopefully in time there will be.”
Rotherham Council cabinet member Cllr Emma Hoddinott welcomed Steve’s idea of a plaque to commemorate James’ event here.
She added: “It’s interesting finding out about this part of our history. Rotherham people were interested in this, and we know Rotherham people like to get involved.”
Speeches made the news
THE following is what appeared in the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent on July 22, 1854, following a speech given by Watkins in the city...
The Declaration of Independence affirmed that all men are created free and equal. But in defiance of this solemn declaration, there are two millions and a half of slaves on its soil.
Having been for 20 years a slave, he knew something of their condition. He was not permitted to receive any education, not even to attend a Sunday school – none dared tell him about Christ.
A slave was only considered a thing, like a horse, and was bought and sold in the market like cattle. The blacks were not the only sufferers, the whites were partners therein.
Infants are sold by weight — two guineas for every pound. Infants are sold from the breast. They would sell an angel if they could.
His own sister had been sold, and that too for the white man’s lust. The horrors of slavery could not be exaggerated — the picture was so black, that it was impossible to over colour.
He remembered in youth walking in the tobacco fields, and watching in the tobacco fields, and watching the big sun in its glorious freedom, rising and setting and spanning the heavens, and as he gazed he was moved by a passionate longing to be free, and asked: How long shall I be a slave?
But echo returned no response but one of despair — ‘For life!’
He thought it very hard to be thus at the mercy of a man like himself, and not to be able so much as to call even an inch of his skin on his own.
If you could hear the groans of the slaves, and witness for a moment their sufferings, you would never again touch Savannah rice – you would feel you were eating the blood and bones of the negroes.