MILWAUKEE — For Black History Month, the Milwaukee Public Museum is showcasing an exhibit of the Watson Family.
The family arrived in Milwaukee in 1850. According to the museum, the family played a vital role in establishing the city’s Black middle class before abolition.
Richard Hedderman, the museum’s education programs coordinator, has spent years studying the Watson family papers which uncover the story of Sully and Susanna Watson.
Hedderman said after escaping slavery in Virginia, the family made their way to Milwaukee, seeking opportunity.
“Someone was keeping track for Mr. Watson of how much of his wages he was keeping. He was putting aside to buy his freedom in what was called a manumission and we estimate that was set at approximately $500 and here it shows he had saved up to $262.53 at that time,” said Hedderman.
He said when they came to Milwaukee, Sully Watson and his son established themselves as quarrymen and stonecutters.
Susanna Watson and some of her daughters ran a seamstress business.
Hedderman said the family was also responsible for starting several baptist churches in Milwaukee’s Third and Fourth wards.
“They came here when the Black population was really growing, was really becoming foundational and had established itself very dynamically in the fabric of the city,” said Hedderman. “They played a very prominent role to the extent that when Mr. Watson died at age 80 in 1862, his death notice was featured on the front page of the Milwaukee Sentinel.”
As he looked at the Watson House exhibit in Old Milwaukee, Hedderman was reminded of how Milwaukee, before abolition, was a haven for those escaping slavery.
“The family had an estate of approximately $7,000, which at that time was quite a substantial sum, so they had done very well for themselves and had a remarkable story of success and prosperity and freedom,” said Hedderman.
Every Thursday and Friday in February, curators will be on-hand, providing insight to Watson House visitors.
Hedderman said he hopes people will take this opportunity to see how this family played a small role in making the city what it is today.