Coastal South Carolina in August 1832 was especially hot, and the air was thick with flying insects and humidity. The swamps and low-lying forests of St. James' parish near Charleston made for a most unhealthy environment in the summer. It was here that Samuel Codes Watson was born. He was of mixed race, closely related to some of Charleston's most prominent white families but separated from them by his fractional African ancestry. Unlike most mixed race persons in the antebellum South, Samuel Watson was born into a free family, part of the small mixed-race elite in the Charleston area.
In 1841, Watson's parents died. As a result, he and his siblings found their escape from South Carolina. They were placed in the care of Reverend William McLane, a white Presbyterian minister who took them to Washington, DC. At a private school run by a white abolitionist family Samuel Watson proved a capable student. In 1849, through the minister's connections, sixteen-year-old Watson enrolled in the prestigious Philips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, an exclusive prep school. Watson planned for a successful future as a teacher. He studied math, natural science, philosophy and pedagogy in Andover's English Department. According to an 1887 biography, Watson, disillusioned by the increasing national acrimony over slavery and uncertain about his prospects for securing a teaching position, left the school after three years. He served briefly in the United States Navy aboard a ship surveying the Atlantic coastline. By 1853 Watson had decided to become a doctor.
There were virtually no college-trained African American physicians in the country during the mid-1850s. Indeed, there were only a handful of colleges that accepted African American students. The best known of these was Oberlin College, near Cleveland, Ohio. Watson's brother was enrolled there, so he moved west in the late summer of 1853. Arriving at Oberlin, he found that its curriculum did not include medicine and that the nearest large medical school was at the University of Michigan. Watson traveled to Ann Arbor and formally registered as a student in the university's Medical Department on October 1, 1853. He was one of 154 medical students registered that fall, and was the first African American to attend the university.
The fact that Watson was African American may not have been recognized by his fellow university students or by the faculty. His skin and hair were both very fair. As one contemporary noted, his appearance showed "not the slightest evidence of colored blood." The University of Michigan's Medical Department opened in 1850, and like the Literary Department that opened nine years earlier, it had enrolled only white men as students. In order to gain admission without testing the limits of racial tolerance at the University of Michigan, Watson probably passed as white.
While he may have kept his African heritage a secret during his first few months in Ann Arbor, Watson worried less about being "found out" as time went by. He focused on the lectures and anatomical studies required of the university's medical students. Anatomy classes consisted chiefly of human dissections; the "carving," as the students called it, took place in the poorly ventilated 8' x 10' attic of the university's small Medical Building. This structure, located on the east side of the original campus in central Ann Arbor, had been fitted with a glass dome on its roof to allow light into the dissection room. The glass ceiling also heated the small room, even during the winter, and as each "medic" conducted his work foul odors drifted out onto the campus.
Samuel Watson was never comfortable with the dissection work, nor with the invasive and often brutal medical and surgical practices taught at the university. His interests centered on applied chemistry, the compounding of medicines and therapeutic practices, which at the time constituted a new approach embraced by homeopathic practitioners. Michigan's homeopathic doctors and patients were a formidable political lobby in the mid-1850s, and they pressured the university to introduce homeopathy into the Medical Department's curriculum.
The university's Board of Regents resisted these pressures. Most of the medical students abhorred homeopathy as unscientific quackery. They formed the Serapion Society, a tightly-knit club devoted to preserving the university's existing courses and faculty. It published its own anti-homeopathy journal and sent its student-officers to medical society meetings to marshal support for their cause. The Serapion Society did not welcome Samuel Watson. He found the study of homeopathy and natural cures more alluring than that of surgery, bloodletting and contagious diseases.
While attending school Watson's political interests were piqued. Ann Arbor in the mid-1850s was a regular stop on the abolitionist lecture circuits of the day. Watson came to know Henry Bibb, the famous fugitive slave-turned-lecturer and newspaper editor, as well as George de Baptiste and other African American leaders in Detroit. He reported to them on the political climate in Ann Arbor and on the reception given to the abolitionist speakers who lectured there. Watson was creating a network of influential friends in Detroit's African American community who would aid his own political career in that city some fifteen years later.
By 1856 Watson could no longer bear the University of Michigan's dismissive attitude toward homeopathic medicine. During the summer he left Ann Arbor to enter the Homeopathic Medical College at Cleveland, Ohio. Having attended the University of Michigan for three years, Watson was an advanced student. In March 1857, he graduated from the Cleveland Medical College with a class of twenty-eight colleagues, including one woman. Watson was one of the country's first African Americans to earn the M.D. degree. At the commencement dinner in Cleveland the newly minted physicians toasted "the homeopaths of the State of Michigan," and urged them to continue their "able efforts on behalf of the cause, until they have driven to the wall the law-defying Regents" who had refused to introduce a homeopathic curriculum at the University of Michigan.
Although a doctor, Samuel Watson did not settle into a medical practice. Like other free blacks, Watson studied the escalating conflict over southern slavery. Seeing an unfavorable social climate, even in the North, he moved to Canada. At first Watson sought adventure and perhaps wealth, joining the gold rush to the Fraser River country in British Columbia in 1858. But he soon returned to the Detroit area. In 1859 he worked as a manager on the Whitney, a steamer recently purchased by an African American businessman from Philadelphia. The Whitney plied between Detroit and Sandusky. During this time Watson accumulated enough money to purchase one or two rental properties in Detroit.
In the early 1860s, as civil war erupted in the United States, Watson returned to Canada. For the first time he began to practice medicine, first in Toronto and then in Chatham, Ontario. After President Lincoln announced the emancipation of America's black slaves, Watson returned to Detroit--this time for good.
In 1863 Watson opened a drugstore that would serve the black community of Detroit. He purchased a building at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Beaubien Street, just east of today's Renaissance Center. According to an 1880 Detroit cite directory, the shop was stocked with "all kinds of drugs and medicines, toilet articles, perfumery, shoulder braces, trusses, sponges, tooth and hair brushes, combs, and every description of druggists' sundries [such as are] usually kept in a first-class drug store." Watson ran the pharmacy, mixing prescriptions ordered by other doctors and counseling customers who could not afford a physician. In the local community he soon became known as Doctor Watson.
In 1867 Watson moved his drugstore a few blocks east to a larger two-story brick building on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Riopelle Street. The business continued to prosper, attracting both black and white customers. Watson also expanded his real estate holdings in the city. An 1867 Detroit newspaper declared Samuel Watson the richest black property owner in the city.
After the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in early 1870 guaranteed voting rights for black men, Watson asserted his political leadership. In April 1870 he served on Michigan's first all-black jury. Democratic politicians who opposed African American enfanchisment hoped to use the handpicked jury to trap Detroit's black leaders into a public display of legal ineptitude. The jury was summoned to hear the petition of a black plaintiffwho claimed that three white men had assaulted him. Bookmakers wagered that the allblack jury would side with the plaintiff, but Watson and his fellow jurors decided otherwise. During the trial, according to the Detroit Free Press, one less than sympathetic juror interrupted the proceedings claiming that the panel was "not disposed to listen to sentimental platitudes concerning [our] race, color or condition." Their finding helped African Americans gain a legal and political credibility in Detroit unimaginable only a few years earlier.
Watson used the cache he derived from the case to enter Republican Party politics in Detroit. Republicans, anxious to court black votes, nominated Watson as a candidate for the State House of Representatives in the 1874 election, making him the first African American to run for the Michigan legislature. Although Watson (and most of the Republican ticket) lost that year, he was nominated the following year to run for the Detroit Board of Estimates (tax assessors). When a suspicious printing error on the ballot invalidated hundreds of Watson votes, the Democratic winner of the election stepped aside. Watson was seated on the board in 1876, becoming the first African American Republican elected to a city office in Detroit.
In the mid-1870s Watson was very active on behalf of Republican policies, organizing African American voter rallies and making speeches. Although he was again nominated for the State House in 1876 (and he again lost), Watson was losing faith in the Republican Party's commitment to political equality for African Americans. At one meeting of black voters in August 1876 his only statement on behalf of the "Party of Lincoln" was that African Americans "suffered enough now under Republican rule; what would be their condition under Democratic rule?" Although he was later elected as a Republican to two terms on the Detroit City Council, Watson and many other African Americans began searching for an alternative to the Republican Party.
Detroit Republicans, wanting to retain black votes, arranged to have Watson named as a delegate-at-large to the Republican National Convention in 1884--he became the first African American to hold this party post. Also in 1884 Watson was named as Michigan's only African American commissioner to the World's Exposition at New Orleans.
Watson's house on Jefferson Avenue became both an active family center and a hub for the leaders of Detroit's African American community. It was home not only to Watson and his second wife, Camilla Coleman of Philadelphia, but also to a son, Arthur, a printer, and to a daughter, Amy, an assistant at the Detroit Public Library. A nephew, David L. Watson, who specialized in mechanical work on the popular new "wheels," or bicycles, also lived there. Family members from Washington, DC visited regularly, as did African American newspapermen and politicians. In 1881 the Oak and Ivy Club, a nonpartisan literary society for the city's top African American businessmen, was organized in the sitting room. Its meetings were often held there, and Watson served as the club's president three times. Younger African American men also dropped in for meetings of the Detroit Social Club, an organization for up-and-coming black entrepreneurs of which Arthur Watson was a member.
In the late 1880s Watson pulled away from the Republican Party. He formed a new political organization, the Independent Colored Democratic Club, to explore the potential for shifting Detroit's black vote into the Democrats' column. The move caused an earthquake in black Republican circles, both locally and nationally. Even the country's foremost black political figure, Frederick Douglass, was consulted on the impact of Watson's defection from the Republicans. Douglass believed that Watson's decision would cost Watson political influence within Detroit's black community, but his theory was never tested.
Watson became seriously ill in mid-1891. After successive bouts with colds and pneumonia sixty-year-old Watson died in Detroit in March 1892. A large funeral was held in Detroit and one local paper claimed that his actions "made it possible for other Afro-Americans to aspire still higher."
Samuel Watson was an ambitious African American pioneer in higher education, medicine, business and politics. He saw, as only a handful of either white or African American leaders in his generation did, that for the United States to fulfill its own charter it had to make racial heritage a less important life-factor than American citizenship, application and ingenuity. One imagines he would have approved of the obituary that honored him for "his purity of character, his high moral standard, his exalted position in our social circles ... and his honorable commercial career," without mentioning his race or his color at all.
LAURA M. CALKINS holds a PhD from the University of London, England. She is completing a book on the history of diversity at the University of Michigan. +++++++…