Lucian B. Watkins

1879 –

Lucian Bottow Watkins was born in Chesterfield, Virginia, in 1879 and attended public schools in his birthplace. He later enrolled at Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute in Petersburg. 

Watkins worked as a schoolteacher before publishing his first volume of poems, Voices of Solitude (M. A. Donahue & Company Publishers, 1903), followed by The Old Log Cabin (1910), an ode to President Abraham Lincoln, self-published with The Printery in Fort D. A. Russell, Wyoming, in 1910. Nicknamed “the poet laureate of the New Negro,” Watkins is best known for his poem “The Star of Ethiopia” (1918), a work dedicated to
W. E. B. Du Bois’s national tour of The Star of Ethiopia pageant and published in The Crisis magazine. Watkins published additional work in The Crisis, including the illustrated poem “These” (February 1918). He next wrote “To Rabindranath Tagore,” an ode to Tagore in honor of the poet’s refusal to accept British knighthood. The poem was published in the September 1919 issue of Young India.

Watkins was a soldier during the First World War and wrote about both his combat experiences and the irony of facing mortal danger both in the American South and in foreign war zones. He served in the Philippines from 1914 to 1917 before being relocated to France. Soon thereafter, he fell ill and died in Fort McHenry Hospital in Baltimore, on February 2, 1921.

Watkins’s work was anthologized in both Robert T. Kerlin’s Negro Poets and Their Poems (Associated Publishers, Inc., 1923) and The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922), edited by James Weldon Johnson. Before his death, Watkins completed a manuscript for a second poetry volume, titled “Whispering Winds,” but it was never published. Watkins may have been the first enlisted African American soldier to publish a book of poetry.