A Close Shave

In honor of Black History Month, the Collections Department is eager to present the story of William Henry Watson – a Civil War veteran, Rockford barber, and important addition to the history of Rockford’s black community.  William was born sometime between 1840 and 1844 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His father, Thomas Watson, was born in Kentucky and his mother, Hannah, was born in Guyana, a British sugar-producing colony at the time. It is unknown whether his parents were born as slaves or free blacks, but William was born free.

William Henry Watson wearing the membership badge of the GAR, circa 1890s

William Henry Watson wearing the membership badge of the GAR, circa 1890s

On February 11, 1864, William enlisted in the army and served as a corporal in Company K of the 25th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops. His military record states that at the time of his enlistment, William was 22 years old, 5 feet and 4.5 inches tall, had brown eyes and black hair, and worked as a barber. He was promoted to full corporal and then to full sergeant in less than two months.

Company E, 4th Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops at Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress)

Company E, 4th Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops at Washington, D.C.
(Library of Congress)

William endured several hardships and fought the enemy multiple times. During a transport on the steamer Suwanee, William’s ship encountered a storm near the island of Hatteras and sprung a leak. The soldiers manned Suwannee’s pumps and used buckets to keep themselves afloat. After thirty-six hours of strenuous work, they entered the harbor of Beaufort, North Carolina. They received hardly any rest as the regiment was called to defend Little Washington, which was under siege by the Confederate Army. The siege lasted for a little more than two weeks when the Confederates pulled back. William’s regiment also defended both New Orleans, Louisiana and Pensacola, Florida from Confederate attack. During the spring and summer of 1865, the regiment found themselves without proper food and nutrition, and the men suffered from scurvy. About 150 died and many more were disabled for life. In December 1865, the regiment was ordered to return to Philadelphia where the soldiers were mustered out of service.

William Watson, who was also known as “Cap,” traveled to southern Illinois sometime afterwards with his wife Anna and their three sons. However, Anna preferred her home out east, and the couple separated. William arrived in Rockford in the early 1890s as a middle-aged gentleman. In 1892, he worked as a barber with James McCard, another African-American barber. He remarried and divorced somewhat quickly, and Anna came to Rockford in 1899 where she resumed her role as his wife. In that same year, William was running a barber shop at 116 South Main Street, located in the basement of what would become D.J. Stewart & Co. He was a member of the Grand Army of the Republic as well as the “lodge of colored Masons.”

The Stewart Building (right) next to the Chick House (left), c. 1893

The Stewart Building (right) next to the Chick House (left), c. 1893

Forty years after his service in the Civil War, William Watson again escaped from the hands of death when he witnessed a street car accident in June 1904. One of the cars had been left standing in front of the car shops on Kishwaukee Street. By some unknown force, it began moving down the tracks on its own accord, gaining speed as it went. Heading down the State Street grade, the empty streetcar crossed the bridge and attempted to follow the tracks as it turned the corner at Wyman Street. But the car was moving at such great speeds that it jumped off the tracks and crashed into several telephone poles and finally into the Harnett Shoe Store. William had been standing at that very corner with Mr. and Mrs. Reuben Boyd, whose barber shop was located in the building’s basement. William recounted what he saw to the Rockford Republic, stating that they witnessed the car race over the bridge at forty or fifty miles per hour, cutting the wires as it went. Mrs. Boyd turned and ran down the steps to the shop. Reuben was struck in the legs by the trolley pole as it rushed past and was knocked down. William helped up his friend as the car crashed into the shoe store. He told the Republic, “I was in de war and didn’t get scared when dey shot bullets at me, but when it comes to shooting cars at a fellow I just can’t stand for dat… I never want to see anything more like dat.” Several people were injured, including Mrs. Boyd who had been struck by a small iron tank that fell from the car as she rushed down the stairs to safety. She received a fractured elbow, smashed finger, and cut to the face. Luckily, no one was killed.

In this view, the street car came down the State Street Bridge, turned to the right, and crashed into the building on the corner, Harnett’s Shoe Store. In this image, an early automobile is parked in front of the building.

In this view, the street car came down the State Street Bridge, turned to the right, and crashed into the building on the corner, Harnett’s Shoe Store. In this image, an early automobile is parked in front of the building.

Rockford’s black population, including those of Beloit, Belvidere, and Elgin, celebrated a “Freedom’s Day” on New Year’s Day 1906. A parade led by the “Rockford colored band” was held in Rockford’s streets. It was followed by programs and exercises at Armory hall, and concluded with a dinner. William was “marshal of the day.”

William Henry Watson died on August 15, 1919. He was about 85 years old and had been working in his son Thomas’ barber shop at 215 South Wyman Street for several years. His funeral services were held at the Allen Methodist Episcopal Church, of which he had been a member. He was buried at West Side Cemetery, today known as Greenwood Cemetery.

William Henry Watson’s grave at Greenwood Cemetery

William Henry Watson’s grave at Greenwood Cemetery

William Watson’s life and his roles in the Civil War and Rockford businesses represent one of the limited stories from our collection on the history of Rockford’s black population. Several books on African-Americans in Rockford have been written, such as John L. Molyneaux’s African-Americans in Early Rockford, 1834-1871; however, our physical collection still lacks documents, photographs, and objects that chronicle their important histories in Winnebago County.

Want to celebrate Black History Month with hands-on activities? Come to our family-centered workshop on Saturday, February 21 and learn about “Jazz in Art History.” Hear about All-American Jazz legends past and present. Did you know that Jazz and painting go hand-in-hand? Paint your own Jazz poster and learn more about our black community in Rockford. Free with regular museum admission!! For more information, click here: http://www.midwayvillage.com/wordpress/event-registration/?ee=128

These workshops take place the third Saturday of each month with different ethnical themes.

To learn more about Rockford’s black community and its barber shops, visit our newest exhibit Many Faces, One Community.

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