Get to Know Some of Milwaukee's Black Pioneers this Month at the Milwaukee Public Museum
One of the most fascinating stops in the residential part of the Milwaukee Public Museum’s venerable “Streets of Old Milwaukee” exhibit is the little mid-19th century cottage home of Sully and Susanna Watson. The Watsons were free blacks who had fled vicious prejudice and oppression before settling in Milwaukee in 1850. In honor of Black History Month, the museum is holding “Meet the Watsons,” a series of special interactive programs detailing the story of the Watson Family and their place in Milwaukee’s history. The program runs Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays throughout the end of the month. You can visit the interactive exhibit between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. each of those days. An extended program, running 10:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m., will be held on Feb. 20, Presidents’ Day.
Sully Watson was born into slavery the early 1780s. Owned by a man in the limestone quarry business, young Watson was trained as a stone mason. In 1827, now married to a freeborn woman named Susana, he made a deal with the son of his owner to buy his freedom. Over the next seven years, Sully paid down his $500 purchase price and, upon the death of his owner, was granted his freedom. Shortly thereafter, the Watsons fled to Ohio with their five children.
The Watsons arrived in Milwaukee in 1850, following one of their daughters, Ann, who had settled in the city with her husband, barbershop owner William Henry Anderson. In Milwaukee, considered then to be a fairly tolerant place for African Americans, the Watsons prospered. They owned a home, were active in civic endeavors, and saw their children have business and social opportunities that never would have been possible in Virginia or Ohio. The great-granddaughter of the Watsons, Mabel Raimey, earned a law degree from Marquette University in 1927 and became the state’s first black, female attorney. Raimey died in 1986 as the last known descendent of the Watsons.
In 1992, the Milwaukee Public Museum purchased a trove of Watson family photos and documents. Eight years later, the Watson home officially opened in the Streets of Old Milwaukee, the first display in the exhibit to be dedicated to black pioneers. Aspects of the Watsons’ lives went into the details of the home, including a Richmond-style corner cabinet that the family might have purchased before fleeing to Ohio and a distinctive style of “banjo clock” that they might have acquired after landing in Milwaukee. The mannequin replicas of Sully and Susana were also designed to convey the true life of the family. In the display, Susana is reading a letter aloud to her seated husband. Sully was never taught to read or write, skills that were considered too dangerous to be granted to indentured persons.
“Meet the Watsons” runs through the end of the month. The program is free for MPM members and included with the price of non-member admission.