Sunnyside presents the bust of its builder, Rev. William Watkins
Despite facing a serious storm on Monday evening, a group of friends and visitors came out to see the unveiling of Bob Willis’ bust of the Rev. William Hamilton Watkins (1815-1881) at Sunnyside Bed & Breakfast at 102 Rembert St.
“Rev. Watkins is the most important subject that we talk about during our tours,” said Sunnyside owner Colleen Wilkins. “Everybody was just amazed when they saw the bust. They were amazed by the likeness. It was so perfect, and it matched the photo so well. Everybody was struck by the resemblance.”
Watkins was the Civil War-era preacher who built Sunnyside as a parsonage in the 1850s. As pastor of Jefferson Street Methodist Church, he was known as a preacher of conviction and the minister who conducted the funeral service for William Johnson, the “Barber of Natchez,” in 1851, according to Wilkins.
“There is a story with Rev. Watkins,” said Wilkins. “We dedicate our tours to talking about the history of Rev. Watkins. After I saw his bust, I knew this would be just the thing to put an exclamation point on the end of our story. We can now point to the bust and say, ‘This is a likeness of him sculpted by Bob Willis.’”
Willis is a retired pastor and grief counselor who lives in Oklahoma. He’s been a sculptor for almost 30 years. He and his wife, Lynn, are frequent visitors to Natchez, a place, he said, they absolutely love. Over the years, he has sculpted several important figures from the city’s history.
Earlier this year, Zion Chapel A.M.E. Church commissioned Willis to sculpt a bust of Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress. Revels was also an early pastor of Zion Chapel and the first president of Alcorn A&M College, which is now Alcorn State University, in Lorman. The church unveiled Revels’ bust during a special ceremony on Sept. 30.
Wilkins said she learned of Willis’ work through her friend, Ann Elizabeth Kaiser, who oversees The Manse at 307 South Rankin. The Manse houses three of Willis’ sculptures.
“She wanted me to meet him and so she brought him over,” Wilkins recalled. “He showed me pictures of some of the things he’s done. It’s unbelievable what he can do.”
In a recent post on Facebook, Kaiser commented on a photo of Watkins’ bust shared by Wilkins. “Amazing!” she wrote. “We have so many historical figures in Natchez to remember! Your tourists at Sunnyside will surely love and appreciate this beautiful art piece along with learning about Dr. Watkins. Perfect for our tourism industry! Can’t wait to see the sculpture in person!”
Wilkins said the bust will be placed in the entryway of Sunnyside. “I want everyone to see what beautiful work Willis does and hopefully have a bust sculpted of someone they love and respect. I think anybody who sees his work will be amazed.”
Watkins was born on April 11, 1815, in Jefferson County. Willis said he was an ordained Methodist Episcopal minister who served congregations in Natchez, Woodville, Jackson, and Vicksburg. He also served for two years as president of Centenary College in Jackson, La. (now located in Shreveport, La.).
Watkins and his wife, Elizabeth, had eight children. During the Civil War, he was arrested for treason and spent time, possibly several months, in a prisoner-of-war camp until the end of the war.
Wilkins recounts his story
When the Union troops were camped at the top of the hill at Rembert and St. Catherine streets, a Union soldier by the name of Jones became friends with the Watkins family. Watkins’ daughter, Hattie, fell in love with him.
One day Jones was nearby when Confederates came to Watkins for assistance. They asked if he would contribute money, food, arms, and clothing to the Confederacy. Watkins agreed to help. His oldest son was fighting in the war, and he hoped that some of his contributions would get to his son.
Jones, however, reported Watkins to the Union Army, and in 1865, Watkins was arrested and charged with treason. According to reports, he was roughly treated. He reportedly said that he had never been so deceived in his life as by Jones.
During his trial, the commandant told Watkins that the crimes for which he was charged were punishable by death. Watkins replied, “I know nothing of the laws of war, only the Gospel of God.”
Watkins’ bail was set at $10,000, which is equivalent to about $188,755.21 in 2023. Because he only made $1,100 a year (about $20,763.07 in 2023), he could not come up with the money. Consequently, he remained incarcerated until the end of 1865, when he was released along with the POWs. Once released, he went on to minister in Jackson, Vicksburg, Woodville, and other places.
Watkins died on Feb. 5, 1881, in Jackson. He was 65. He is buried at Cane Ridge Cemetery in Lorman, Miss.
Story BY: Dr Roscoe Barnes III