He Had Hidden Him Under The Floor

The Tulane building in 2004.  During the time of this event the Tulane family lived upstairs and the store was downstairs.

Here is a story my cousin Jacqui told me about her grandfather, Victor Tulane and his rescue of Dr. William Watkins in Montgomery, Alabama.  This story was told to her by her mother, Naomi Tulane Vincent.  Naomi was twenty  and the family was living above the store on Ripley and High Street when it occurred.  The Watkins family lived several blocks away on Union Street.

Walking distance between the Tulane’s @ A and the Watkin’s  @ B was about 3 minutes according to Google Maps.

It was the middle of the night when the Tulane family woke up to car lights shining in the windows.  They got up and looked out into the yard.  It was full of cars and trucks.  Victor Tulane told his wife, Willie Lee and daughter, Naomi to go back to bed, everything would be all right.

He let the white men in and they told him they were looking for William F. Watkins, a black dentist who lived several blocks away. Mr. Watkins, they said had insulted one of their wives and they wanted him. Was he there, they asked?  Victor told them that nobody was there except his wife and daughter.  They could look for themselves. They went through the whole house looking everywhere. Finally, satisfied that Dr. Watkins wasn’t there, they left.

As dawn approached, Victor brought Dr. Watkins out from his hiding place beneath the floor.  He put him in the car, piled produce on top of him, drove him to the train station and put him on a train heading north to Chicago.

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Jacqui remembers meeting William Watkins  in New York when she was a child. He was an old man with a white beard. He looked just like Colonel Saunders, she said, and asked if I could find out anything about him, if he was married, did he have children, when did he die? Using various online sources, I was able to put together the following timeline.

Timeline for William Franklin Watkins

  • 1879 – Williams Franklin Watkins Jr. born to William and Sarah (Fauntleroy) Watkins in Montgomery, Alabama.
  • 1880 Census – Montgomery, Alabama – William Watkins Sr. was a carpenter.  William was 1 year old.
  • 1900 Census – Montgomery, Alabama – The family lived at 518 Union Street. William Sr. was a carpenter. There were 6 children at home, including 21 year old William Jr. who was at school. The oldest daughter, Lula was 26, a widow and teaching.  She had a 4 year old son.
  • 1910 Census – Montgomery, Alabama – Williams Watkins is living at home with his parents and four other siblings.
  • 1914 – William Watkins, Sr. Dies

Obituary from the Montgomery Advertiser – March 11, 1914
William Watkins Dead

William Watkins, well known negro (sic) of Montgomery, died at his residence, 518 South Union Street, Tuesday evening at 5 o’clock.  He had been living in Montgomery nearly fifty years and was thoroughly identified with negro church, society and business life.  He was a contractor and builder and stood well in business circles.  He was a member and deacon of the Negro Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and a trustee of Swayne School

  • 1917 – William Watkins Jr and Gussie Rue Harris marry in Birmingham, Alabama (Gussie’s home town.)
  • 1918  – WWI draft registration card information. William is a dentist in Montgomery, Alabama.  Address is the family house on 518 Union St.  He is married to Gussie Rue Watkins.  His eyes are brown and hair is dark. He’s of medium height and build.
  • 1918 – Son William III born in Alabama
  • Between the draft card in 1918 and the 1920 census –  the event described happened.
  •  1920 Census
  • *William is a Lodger in Washington DC and practicing dentistry. Identified as Mulatto. He was 40.
  • *Wife Gussie living with her parents with their son William in Birmingham, AL.
  • *William’s brother Charles is living in Los Angeles, CA.  He is a carpenter.
  •  1924 – Daughter Alice born in Washington DC.
  •  1930 Census – Los Angeles, CA  William F. Watkins 51 years old.  His wife Gussie and their two children, Williams and Alice, are also in the household. He practices dentistry in his own office.
  • 1936 – His mother dies and is buried in Montgomery, AL
  • 1954 – William F. Watkins died

I found some of William Watkins extended family on Ancestry.Com and was able to see some photos of the family. The person I contacted said he did look like Col. Saunders. Unfortunately they had never heard this story.

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For photographs and other posts about the Tulane family click on the links below.
Another Photographic Mystery Solved.  Photos of the Tulane family and the store.
Tulane Calls On Members of Race to be Patriotic. Article from 1918
Sepia Saturday – In Which I Hit the Google Jackpot. – More finds about the Tulanes.

11 thoughts on “He Had Hidden Him Under The Floor”

  1. Victor Tulane was a brave man. I love the way you've woven together oral history and information from historical records in this post, Kristin.

  2. Wonderful to be able to document a family story like that, and it makes an interesting read. I wonder what the truth of the story was? Perhaps one day you'll hear from a descendant.

  3. Brett, I found a family member on Ancestry and they are going to get back to me with their information on this story as soon as they get through a health crisis. I will post what I learn.

  4. What bravery for Victor Tulane. If caught, both Tulane and Dr Watkins' lives would be in jeopardy. Looking forward to the next post.

  5. I always hope I'd be one who stood up and risked everything for another person. I've never had to find out and pray I never do. Great job. Terrifying material.

  6. great story, fab research too, glad this info is not forgotten.

    The events took place a few blocks from where my home is now, and many people in Montgomery would rather see all the stories and occurrences from that era go away and never be remembered at all since it shows badly on them. People should always remember their history, especially the bad things or it will just happen again.

    Embrace the past, look towards the future – they are twined together as the present and cannot be separated.

    1. Thank you Shane. I know that many stories were lost because nobody passed them down. I’m lucky I connected with a cousin who has many stories that I had never heard.

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