From Ohio History Central
Watkins was a free African-American man who was accused of being a runaway slave in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Little is known of Watkins's life, other than he was a free African American in Cincinnati, Ohio. In September 1850, a federal marshal, Samuel Bloom, arrested Watkins and charged him with being a fugitive slave. At a court hearing, Judge Spooner released Watkins, claiming that the marshal did not substantiate that Watkins was a slave. Soon thereafter, two other marshals, William H. Hardin and Frank Green, arrested Watkins, claiming that he had stolen a watch. Watkins believed that the men would take him before Judge Spooner, who would release him, but the marshals tried to take him directly to Kentucky. Watkins created a scene, yelling "murder." One of the marshals knocked him unconscious, but a group of African Americans immediately surrounded the wagon and began to yell "kidnappers" and urged people to stone the marshals. The marshals tried to quiet the African Americans by claiming that Watkins was a fugitive slave and that his owner was waiting in Covington, Kentucky with a three hundred dollar reward. The African Americans refused to let the marshals pass, despite the officials offering the blacks a bribe. They demanded that the marshals take Watkins to Judge Spooner for a hearing. A mob of Irish workers soon formed and began to assault the African Americans. During this time period, many Irishmen competed with African Americans for employment and violence sometimes erupted between the two groups. Watkins managed to escape in the commotion. It is unknown what became of this accused slave. Local officials arrested the marshals on kidnapping charges. Judge Spooner released the marshals, deciding that there was no proof that Watkins was not a fugitive slave. If Watkins was a runaway slave, the marshals could not be convicted of kidnapping.
Watkins's story illustrates the difficulties that African Americans faced in the United States of America in the early nineteenth century. While many Northern states had provisions outlawing slavery, runaway slaves did not necessarily gain their freedom upon arriving in a free state. Federal law permitted slaveowners to reclaim their runaway slaves. Even free African Americans risked being remanded to slavery by greedy slaveowners and slave catchers.
- Middleton, Stephen. "The Fugitive Slave Crisis in Cincinnati, 1850-1860: Resistance, Enforcement, and Black Refugees." Journal of Negro History 72 (Winter-Spring 1987): 20-32.