New bridge in Kings County named for Black 'pipe-smoking icon'

·6 min read
Charlotte Watson is pictured, left, in a photo taken around 1900, with Margaret Jane Menzie on Menzie Road in Kings County. (Submitted by Barb Pearce - image credit)
Charlotte Watson is pictured, left, in a photo taken around 1900, with Margaret Jane Menzie on Menzie Road in Kings County. (Submitted by Barb Pearce - image credit)

A Saint John historian and people who live in the Springfield area of King's County are welcoming news that its historical Black community is being memorialized.

But they say the way it's being done may not be the most fitting tribute.

The provincial government announced earlier this month that Grant Brook Bridge No. 1, on Route 124, near the northeastern end of Belleisle Bay, had been renamed after Charlotte Watson.

Pictured is the new bridge named after Charlotte Watson. It opened last fall to replace a covered bridge that was washed away by a storm in 2015.
Pictured is the new bridge named after Charlotte Watson. It opened last fall to replace a covered bridge that was washed away by a storm in 2015.

Watson, who lived about 10 kilometres from there, died in 1918.

She was the last surviving member of a Black community in Springfield Parish that once numbered two or three dozen, according to Peter Little of the New Brunswick Black History Society.

But Watson's father was actually the reason Little started writing to the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.

Henry Boram's unpunished killing is "one of the most flagrant cases of injustice in New Brunswick's criminal court history," Little said. But the province has a policy against naming things after murder victims.

Watson's father was a former slave who arrived in the province after the War of 1812.

"We don't know if he fought for the British against the American invaders or if he simply ran away from his master in Virginia, lured by the English promise of freedom," wrote Little.

He and another Black man named Benjamin Johnson applied for a land grant in the area in 1819.

They had "glowing testimonials from pillars of the community," said Little, but they were turned down.

Boram went on working for Edward Scovil, who was the local justice, on his farm and building Scovil a new house.

He eventually made enough money to buy land from a Black farmer near the mouth of Pascobac Creek, Little recounted.

Mike Sherwood says he and his children frequently visit Watson’s grave in the Midland Baptist Cemetery. Its granite marker stands alone in a large area
Mike Sherwood says he and his children frequently visit Watson’s grave in the Midland Baptist Cemetery. Its granite marker stands alone in a large area

He would have been an elderly man by October 1846, when he was attacked and beaten to death by four men.

Boram was walking home, said Little, when he came across some thugs who had left a tavern and were ganging up on another man.

"Henry said basically, 'Leave him alone,' … and they turned their wrath on him."

Meanwhile, the man who was originally being targeted managed to escape and gave evidence to Scovil of what he'd witnessed.

Four men were arrested and held in jail for over a year, but when they finally got to court the charges were thrown out on a technicality — the Crown had not filed the victim's name in the indictment.

Charlotte was 22 when her father died, said Little, and she went on to become a well-respected member of the community, and a "pipe-smoking" icon.

Although she was "poor" and "toiled on her family farm and in the houses of well-to-do white settlers," said Little, "she seems to have garnered the affection and respect of her neighbours at a time when racial prejudice was more prevalent."

Little feels Watson's name and story have "faded from the collective memory of the residents of Kings County." In that respect, he's happy a bridge is now named for her.

Charlotte Watson, who died just shy of 95 years old.
Charlotte Watson, who died just shy of 95 years old.

"Though it is in no way justice for Henry Boram," said Little, "I am thankful that in some small way, the Boram family, and by extension, all of the pioneering Black families of Springfield Parish will be forever remembered in this tangible fashion."

Census records show several years after her father was killed, Charlotte was living and working as a servant in the Scovil house.

She married David Watson in 1852. By 1861, they were settled on the Boram farm with 35 acres under cultivation and another 40 acres of wooded land. They raised a family of at least five children.

Watson was listed as Baptist in census returns, said Little, but she was a "perennial volunteer," at the local Anglican Church and left her land to the church when she died, a month shy of her 95th birthday.

Her lifeless form was found sitting under a tree within sight of her home.

The tree where Charlotte Watson died in 1918.
The tree where Charlotte Watson died in 1918.

Watson had walked to the local store for groceries and didn't quite make it back home.

Mike Sherwood, who grew up down the road from Watson's homestead, said her death became the stuff of local legend.

"I was scared of her name," he said.

Sherwood remembers being about five years old and warned by other children not to venture down the single-lane dirt road across from his family's dairy farm because that's where Watson had died.

In later years he became intrigued by the story and wanted to find out more.

He learned that his great-great-great grandmother, Annie Sherwood, had been friends with Watson and was part of a search party that went out looking for her the day she was found dead.

Neighbours looked out for each other, said Sherwood, and knew something was wrong when no smoke was coming from her chimney.

A teacher friend and local Grade 8 students did more research and included Watson's story in a book about local history.

(Sherwood said 300 copies of that book were sold this year as a fundraiser for a colleague in the local fire department who is undergoing cancer treatment.)

Like Little, Sherwood is also happy something's been named after Watson, but he has some reservations of his own.

There are a few unnamed bridges closer to Watson's home, he said, and closer to the spot where her father was allegedly murdered, that might be more appropriate.

"My first thought was that's great. My second thought was in Charlotte's day that was four communities away from where she lived. I'm not sure she would have ever been there. That's a long way to walk."

A Google Map image shows the distance from the bridge named after Watson, left, to the approximate location of her former home, right.
A Google Map image shows the distance from the bridge named after Watson, left, to the approximate location of her former home, right.

Little is trying to look at the bridge as a symbol, an idea first suggested to him by his wife.

"Not only does it symbolize a link between the past and the present, but can also symbolize a healing of a racial divide."

"If we allow it, I mean, symbolism aside, all healing starts here."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.