By the early 1900s, race relations in the United Sates had grown increasingly tumultuous. Despite the abolishment of slavery, post-Civil War America was laden with barriers for people of color. Prominent Black leaders disagreed about how best to move forward. On the one hand, W.E.B. DuBois urged his supporters to challenge racial segregation and Black disenfranchisement directly. However, Booker T. Washington, a famous former slave, advocated for a less confrontational approach. Only education, argued Washington, could lead Blacks toward economic prosperity and ultimately give them an opportunity to attain true American freedom and equality.
Heeding the words of Booker T. Washington, a young Providence minister and his wife decided to open their own institution of learning for Black Rhode Islanders. Reverend William S. Holland, the son of a Virginia slave, had come to Providence in 1902, to take the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church. He quickly realized that the racial realities of the twentieth century – namely, the lack of educational and economic opportunity – threatened his congregation and the Black community at large. In 1908, the couple founded the Watchman Industrial School on Codding Street in Providence, naming the school after the Reverend’s favorite biblical passage:
“…Watchman, what of the night?
The Watchman said, ‘The morning cometh, and also the night…”
Young men at the institute were offered academic instruction as well as courses in carpentry, masonry, and machine repair. Such tremendous learning opportunities were intended to increase young Black men’s chances of gainful employment. Interestingly, Reverend Holland recruited many of his students from Providence’s juvenile court. He defended youth who committed acts motivated by poverty – such as food theft – by asking judges to place them in his care at the Watchman Industrial School rather than sending them to the Sockanosset School for Boys.
The Watchman Industrial School became a beacon of hope for Rhode Island’s Black community. The variety of vocational and academic courses offered, in addition to the child care services that the school provided for working-class parents, made the Institute extremely popular – so popular, in fact, that by the early 1920s, it had outgrown its Codding Street location. Miraculously, by 1923, Reverend Holland had scraped together enough funds to purchase a spacious estate in North Scituate, Rhode Island.
The four acres that came with the new property allowed for the addition of courses in agriculture, blacksmithing, shoe repair, cooking, and sewing. Additionally, Reverend Holland established a summer camp that utilized a nearby lake. Unfortunately, the Watchman Institute’s move to rural Rhode Island brought an entirely new set of problems.
Within a decade of moving to North Scituate, the Watchman Industrial School was plagued by a rash of unexplained fires – vicious attacks attributed to Rhode Island members of the KKK. The hate group terrorized the Institute and its young Black residents relentlessly, hoping to force them out, or burn them out. While the Watchman Industrial School was never physically destroyed, the repeated arson succeeded in financially draining Reverend Holland’s dream. After the Hurricane of ’38 further damaged the deteriorating buildings, the year-round school closed. Reverend Holland continued to operate the Institute’s summer camp until his death in 1958. His wife continued the program until a lack of funds finally ended it in 1974.