Twenty-six-year-old Cleary Watts died on May 1st, in 1849 of Tuberculosis, and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. The gender of this person was not recorded. “Cleary” is normally a male’s name. However, I noticed that in 19th Century African American culture, it is also used for a female’s name. Mr./Ms. Watts was a member of the large Watts clan that had lived near the Delaware River on Corn Street above Reed Street for at least a decade before his or her’s death.
Below is the 1850 U.S. Census data on the Watts families on Corn Street. This was recorded one year after Cleary Watts’s death. The deceased may have been a member of Ephraim and Judith Watts’s family. It is likely that Judith was not Cleary’s biological mother.
The members of the Watts family were hard-working with the men employed as porters on the nearby Delaware River waterfront. The women were employed as laundresses, domestics, cooks, and dressmakers. The family attended services at Bethel A.M.E. Church and sent their young children to local private Black schools including the Lombard and St. Mary schools. They owned their own homes. Despite being model citizens, the color of their skin made them second-class citizens who were not allowed to vote or sit on juries. The family members still had to protect themselves from the white gangs who made a game out of “hunting the nig.” They escaped the whip and chains of the Virginia and Maryland plantations to be forced to live in an apartheid city with a different kind of slavery.
There were two days during the year that were much more dangerous for African Americans to be out and about on the streets of Philadelphia. The first and most notorious is July 4th when there were all-day-long drunken rampages by white gangs in the Black neighborhoods. The other is the day that Cleary Watts died. May 1st was traditionally when the Firemen’s Parade was held. All of the volunteer fire companies would cover their fire fighting equipment with layers of flowers and march throughout the city all day long with flags flourishing and bands playing patriotic tunes. During this show of white power, the criminal gangs associated with the fire companies went hunting for African Americans to assault.
On the day that Cleary Watts died, there were major attacks in the Black communities at 6th & Fitzwater Streets, 8th and Catharine Streets, and 5th and Shippen Street (now Bainbridge Street). Even though there were many injured, the newspaper only reported an elderly Black man and woman admitted to Pennsylvania Hospital with skull fractures and cuts. One of those injured was Mr. Isaac Newkkins who was beaten down in front of his home on Bedford Street.
Cleary Watts died on a day that dawned clear but saw intermittent showers for the rest of the day. Mr. or Ms. Cleary Watts was buried, with dignity, at Bethel Burying Ground by his or her large family.
(1) It is often difficult to determine the maternal lineages of older, formerly enslaved individuals. Plantation owners demanded enslaved females start having children when they were thirteen years old. By twenty years old, they were expected to have five children. As an incentive, enslavers would promise freedom to those women who survived their younger years and gave birth to at least fifteen children.