Discover how a simple request by his great grandmother led Tony Watkins, author of Shackled Again? on a quest to uncover untold stories of generational heroism that have long been forgotten in civil rights history.
On a warm day in April 2009, Tony Watkins’ great grandmother Mary E. Russell Watkins (Ma’dear) asked him to clean out an old shack on her property in Lowndes County, Alabama to put more hay inside the shed for her cows.
“I grabbed a pitchfork and began to break up some dirt. After several strokes, I heard a loud clanking sound. At first I thought it was just an old rusty piece of metal or a drink can, but as I dug further down into the soil, one of the teeth of the pitchfork caught on a pair of iron shackles,” said Watkins.
The five-pound iron shackles, as Watkins came to learn from a historian, were over 150 years old. The linked metal chains had been placed there long ago and buried by an ancestor as a way to forget the pain and memory of being a bound human being.
“When I found those shackles, I felt exhilarated,” said Watkins. “All the stories I’d been told by my great grandmother and others that had been passed down to me, the evidence was staring back at me on the edge of that fork,”
When Watkins showed the shackles to Ma’ dear, her reaction was very different than his and what he suspected.
“The discovery saddened her because unlike me she knew what they represented. She told me the story of her grandmother Rosanna and other slaves who were shackled in chains similarly to the ones I‘d found and forcefully taken to Alabama to work on plantations in Lowndes County. Life was hard for them, cruel even.”
Watkins learned stories like when Rosanna was seven years old, she was badly burned for simply trying to read.
“She liked to sit under a big oak tree to skim through the pictures in books, since she didn’t know how to read. One day a white man saw her with the book and thought she was reading. He then snatched the book from her, began beating her, made a small brush fire and grabbed her by the arms, then forced her hands into the fire,” said Watkins.
“It’s little known stories like these that show just how difficult life was under segregation, the cruelties of slavery, and how much black people had to go through for something as basic as learning how to read.”
For Watkins, the day he found those shackles sparked a deep desire to uncover more stories. Stories that were still unknown or stories that had long been forgotten about what life was like for brave men, women and children − both black and white – who risked their lives for freedom.
Those stories eventually became Watkins first book Shackled Again? , a collection of stories, historical documents, census records, photos, tax records, and personal accounts of those who lived and survived some of the most turbulent years in American history. He has traveled to Georgia, Florida and Alabama and conducted interviews across the country in search of these unknown stories as a way to honor those whose contributions have been lost to history.
“When I started researching this book, I was amazed by the countless stories of courage in the face of almost certain death by people who were willing to challenge a segregated system and demand that America live up to its principles,” said Watkins. “The truly sad thing is that few have ever heard these stories. That’s wrong. We need to correct the terrible disservice we have done by not memorializing the sacrifices these people made.”
Watkins points to stories in the book of Amy Spain a 17-year-old slave girl who was hanged just days before she was supposed to receive her freedom for expressing joy that General William T. Sherman’s army was coming to liberate slaves in South Carolina. Or, the story of the slave who fooled General James T. Wilson’s army into believing there was an outbreak of smallpox in Lowndes to prevent Marengo Plantation from being taken by the Union Army; or the tales of the hanging black mothers who were martyred for protecting their children. There are also other stories from Selma, Alabama; the town of Rosewood, and the Freedom Rides.
Watkins says Shackled Again? is the first of many books he plans to write about unsung heroes. He said doing so fulfills a promise he made to his great grandmother.
“Ma ‘dear was a humble person, but she was a proud person. She made me promise to go as far as I could go in life, never forget where I come from and to do all things she was not able to do,” he said. “Telling her stories and those of others is my way of honoring them. It’s how I’m keeping my promise to her.”
BlackTie Magazine is a lifestyle magazine based in Montgomery Alabama from the African American perspective. The culture of the publication is set on helping locals get informed, get inspired, and get involved. At BlackTie Magazine, we understand that there are many positive and inspirational people of color doing big things in the area, which is why we created a platform where we can help celebrate and honor those who are doing just that!
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