Historic Elmwood Cemetery & Foundation

Historic Elmwood Cemetery & Foundation

Where Detroit's History Endures

Samuel Codes Watson

Samuel Codes WatsonSamuel Codes Watson

Samuel Codes Watson was born in South Carolina in 1832.  He was of mixed race, born into a free family, part of the small mixed-race elite in the Charleston area.  His parents died in 1841. He and his siblings were placed in the care of Reverend William McLane, a white Presbyterian minister who took them to Washington DC. He attended a private school run by a white abolitionist family. He was quite capable and was then enrolled in Philips Academy in Andover Massachusetts.  

Originally, Watson intended to become a teacher but was disillusioned by the increasing national acrimony over slavery and his prospects for securing a teaching position.  By 1853 Watson had decided he would become a doctor.  There were virtually no college-trained African American physicians in the country at this time.  In fact, only a handful of colleges accepted African American students.  He intended to join his brother at Oberlin College in Ohio but found its curriculum did not include medicine.  Watson concluded the University of Michigan would be his best choice and registered as a student in the university’s Medical Department on October 1, 1853. He was the first African American student admitted to the University of Michigan.  University of Michigan resources claim he passed as a white man while attending the university.  

In 1857 he received his Doctor of Medicine degree from Cleveland Medical College, as one of the first African Americans to do so.  He was declared the city’s richest black property owner in 1867.  He later became Detroit’s first African American elected city officer, 1876 Board of Estimates (Tax Assessors).

Watson died in 1892 and is buried in Section U, Lot 1.