Before the storytelling began, a few light snacks helped calm a dozen students of Brown Street Academy. I asked one of the small group of mostly fourth graders, preparing to enjoy an after-school program speaker, if he was proud of his school. He nodded a confident ‘yes’. I would soon find out why.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding public education in Wisconsin, strong and undaunted educators across the State hunker-down and find ways to keep knowledge flowing to young minds. The work of Alice’s Garden’s Fieldhands and Foodways Project, now more than ever, proves that collaboration between community-based organizations and institutions like Milwaukee Public Schools play a crucial role in rounding k-12 curricular education.
Venice Williams, Program Director of Alice’s Garden, pulled together with Johnson Park neighbor Brown Street Academy, to host an evening exploring the antebellum history of this near north side neighborhood, and the influence of its most famous settler Deacon Samuel Brown. The Underground Railroad Comes Alive! brought Kimberly Simmons to narrate the story of the first African-American to make safe passage from enslavement to Milwaukee, the story of her great, great, great-grandmother Caroline Quarlls Watkins.
Bound and Determined
Virginian and slave-owner Robert Pryor Quarlls moved to St. Louis in 1826 and bequeathed to his son a woman servant, named Maria, who bore Caroline Quarlls into enslavement. Although she had a fair complexion an blue-eyes, Caroline faced a fate of servitude. Unwilling to accept her lot, Caroline secretly sold lace goods that she learned to sew, from her grandmother. Caroline eventually saved enough money to purchase the keys to her plan for freedom, a “nice dress” and fare on a riverboat ferry north.
On July 4, 1846 at the age of sixteen Caroline, passing as a white woman, wearing the Sunday dress she bought with her savings, boarded a Mississippi River ferry heading to Illinois. After docking in Illinois, a black porter on the ferry, noticed her traveling alone and uncertain. Suspecting Caroline may have been searching for freedom, the porter advised her that in Illinois she would face greater chances of being turned in for ransom and instructed her on how to make it to Wisconsin.
Taking the advice of the porter, Caroline made it to Milwaukee undetected. Again noticed, a black caddy named by Robert Tibald suggested that she seek room at the House Hotel on Wisconsin Avenue and Water Street if she wanted to remain safe. Owned by Samuel Brown, the House Hotel kept Caroline sheltered. However when Charles Hall, the surviving heir of Quarlls estate in St. Louis, realized Caroline’s “escape”, she soon faced pursuit by Hall’s attorney and authorities.
Hall’s attorney and the authorities began scouring Milwaukee boarding houses for Caroline, eventually coming upon Tibald who agreed to tell her whereabouts in exchange for a $100 reward. Milwaukee attorney Asol Finch caught wind of Tibald’s treacherous act and of the Southerners looking for Caroline, and Finch hid Caroline in a sugar barrel at the House Hotel for 12 hours.
Finch soon hurried her away to Samuel Brown’s farm on what is now roughly 20th and Fon du Lac Avenue, a portion of which to this day houses Milwaukee’s oldest elementary school Brown Street Academy. A staunch abolitionist like Sam Brown, Asol Finch established the law firm of Finch & Lynde in 1842, which later would become present day Foley & Lardner.
After a brief stop in Prairieville (present day Waukesha), Caroline joined a group of the first individuals to travel the Old Sauk Trail (present day Interstate 94) to join with Alan Pinkerton (who would later become one of Abraham Lincoln’s secret servicemen), to follow east-marching Union Soldiers from Dundee, Illinois to Detroit. So is told the birth of one of the Northern lines of the Underground Railroad. Not quite a decade later, Joshua Glover would take a similar route from St. Louis to Milwaukee in search of freedom.
Alice’s Garden cultivates land as a part of Milwaukee Urban Gardens, a community land trust providing land for urban agriculture projects. Generations to come will gain an understanding of basic food production as a result of this initiative.
Caroline Quarlls Watkins wrote letters of her journey to freedom, rare first person documentation of the struggles of women and African-Americans to gain equality in 19th century America. Caroline’s stories are now part of the Walk of Fire exhibit at the Kenosha Civil War Museum.
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