Rev. Fred Watkins and Colonel Tom McKnight




Wiggins, Steve


Quad Cities Daily








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TUSCUMBIA -The Reverend Fred Lafayette W. Watkins, was the son of 1st generation Rev. Frederick W. Watkins, a Cherokee Indian, born in TN in 1811 who hid out and avoided Trail of Tears capture and removal during the late 1830s.

As the direction of ‘West’, in some traditional belief systems represents death, there came a time when Rev. Frederick or (Cherokee Fred as the family refers to him to distinguish from three generations of Rev. Fred W. Watkins) had to make a choice – whether to be banished to the western lands or to fall into the slave system; hence the latter was chosen and establishes the genealogy, history and cold case unmarked grave trail of which Tom McKnight, born in New York and Great grandson of Sophia Napier Watkins and Rev. Fred Lafayette W. Watkins set out on a journey to find his roots when his mother died in New York in 2004.

His mother’s curiosity of what happened to the family, whose roots were in northwest Alabama, led McKnight, who worked for the United Nations for most of his life assigned to drought, famine and civil war environments serving in 20 countries led him to research the family tree, as little was known about, or shared by, the elders in the family.

Returning stateside in 2005 to launch the genealogy journey in her memory he drove 14,496 miles in 86 days his first stateside summer in many years armed only with a couple of family stories, one physical address aided by the first of its kind cutting edge technology in 2005 – a Magellan GPS unit as he set out to find family he never knew existed or met before.

McKnight maintains, after 15 years as a resident of Alabama that his “genealogy journey and mission” was guided by Divine Intervention.

He discovered after finding an elder in Arizona during the long distance drive that his Great-Grandmother was Sophia Napier Watkins, Helen Keller family cook when Helen was a child and wife to his Great-grandfather, 2nd generation Rev. Fred Lafayette W. Watkins. 3rd generation Rev. Fred W. Watkins was an Uncle who moved to Louisiana and died at the age of 105.

Mrs. Watkins was also close friend, work colleague, church, community, and fellowship sister of Viney Murphy, Nursemaid to the Keller family siblings.

He also learned through Ms. Chris Ozbirn, head of the Franklin County Archives in Russellville AL, that his Great-Grandfather was “A very important man,” according to Ms. Ozbirn’s review of the American Star article, the African American newspaper edited by Professor George Washington Trenholm during the 1900s and printed in Tuscumbia.

The ‘Star’ as it was commonly known throughout the black community was the official document of the Muscle Shoals Black Missionary Baptist Association whose organizational formation was assisted by Rev. Dr. Josephus Shackelford, a white Baptist minister and instrumental in ordaining a number of African American preachers after Emancipation.

According to the article, McKnight’s Great-Grandfather’s funeral was presided over by at least a half dozen preachers and with his home-going celebration held on 26 February 1911, at First Baptist Missionary Baptist Church in Tuscumbia, Oakwood cemetery, a few blocks away became his final resting place as more than 2,000 people, one of the largest funerals witnessed in northwest Alabama paid their final respects to the popular and well respected quarter-town preacher.

McKnight’s Great-Grandfather was born 25 Dec 1853 and died 24 February 1911.

He was laid to rest in Tuscumbia’s Oakwood Cemetery, but where?

This launched McKnight’s cold case type mystery search for his unmarked grave with the goal to honor his Great-grandfather’s resting place with a headstone.

“Reverend Fred” as he was often referred, lived in Tuscumbia and was assigned to Bethel Lauderdale MB Church in Smithsonia in 1901. Every weekend he took the ferry in Cherokee to his Bend in the River church, in Florence, AL, where he served as pastor for 11 years.

His last sermon took place on 24 February 1911 and at its conclusion he stated that he wasn’t feeling very well. He never returned.

Ms. Ozbirn, who the previous year with her daughter searched for Great-Grandmother Sophia Napier Watkins’ burial spot, found her headstone and shared the details of her location with McKnight while he was stateside on bereavement leave before returning to U.N. duty in Sudan of 2004.

Both theorized that Rev. Fred should have been buried near his wife. Sophia died 14 August 1917 six years after her preacher husband.

While Ms. Ozbirn’s coat-hanger dousing for graves approach in 2005 revealed a male buried in an empty spot to the right of Sophia Napier Watkins’ headstone bearing Mosaic Templars of America (MTA) symbolic markings, an African American Fraternal organization formed in the late 1890s, assigned to the Celess Mullins Chamber 888, Tuscumbia, AL, it took a number of years of research to zero in on McKnight’s Great-Grandfather’s unmarked grave.

The connecting dots rested with family oral histories, some out of the box thinking and research.

Viney Murphy, (of Keller household fame) became one of the lead officers of the Mosaic Templars of American (MTA) and was head of Tuscumbia’s Celess Mullins 888 Chamber.

As McKnight’s Great-Grandfather died in 1911, followed by Great-Grandmother’s death in 1917, and having been a subscriber to the MTA’s burial insurance fund, instituted around 1914, because of the work, church and organizational relationships Viney and Sophia shared, Viney took responsibility to ensure that Sophia’s burial was next to kin as the former Keller household cook died alone after her remaining children migrated to the mid-west.

Viney Murphy died nearly a year later – 30 October 1918.

“Spiritually ironic,” is how McKnight often refers to his mission and journey to find his family – both above, and below ground.

On Friday, 22 May 2020, a headstone unveiling ceremony was held at 5 p.m. at Tuscumbia’s Oakwood Cemetery with social distancing executed as the diverse crowd of “Family and Family,” as McKnight refers to those that were instrumental to this ultimate mission success witnessed the unveiling event from their cars; and for those that stood, maintained safe distances.

Reverend Fred Lafayette W. Watkins’ headstone unveiling was carried out by Great-great grand daughter, Christina Sophia Cobbs of Pensacola Florida.

The history of Rev. Fred’s life was narrated by Tom McKnight, with three preachers Rev. B.J. Bonner, Rev. David E. Gregg and Rev. Curtis Russell offering prayer over the site, witnessed by the matriarch of the family, 95 year old Mrs. Louise Goodloe Hyler.

The re-celebration event attended by a diverse community of supporters brought McKnight’s search full circle in what he refers to as “Great Medicine Wheel Circle of Life” completion.

109 years after his death, Rev. Fred Lafayette W. Watkins and Helen Keller family cook, Sophia Napier Watkins now share the same burial ground – side by side – together again.

The graveside purification ceremony in accordance with Native American tradition highlighted the ceremony and concluded with a recording of Douglas Spotted Eagle’s Sunrise Song – “Pray”.





Wiggins, Steve, “Rev. Fred Watkins and Colonel Tom McKnight,” Shoals Black History, accessed June 26, 2022,