A resolution to recognize and honor the life of Leslie Watkins, a beloved, longtime Madison entrepreneur and community advocate who passed away on March 5, was presented last night at Madison’s Common Council meeting. The initiative is led by Sabrina Madison, District 17 alder and founder of the Progress Center for Black Women.
Madison was especially interested in honoring the work of Watkins because she was a Black woman whose story deserves to be told. Watkins was one of the first Black women to own and operate a business in downtown Madison.
For seven years, Watkins owned and operated Paperteria, a stationery and gift store in the Capitol Square and later on University Avenue.
“After reading the articles about Leslie and her passing, having known her, not really well, but enough where we’ve had many conversations … her energy was just so beautiful,” Madison told Madison365. “I found out more about her past, and learned that she owned a business and she was one of the first Black women to own a retail business in downtown Madison.
“I did not know that. I was low-key upset that this was not like a very well-known thing,” Madison added. “No one marked this history. I felt that to honor her with a resolution was a first step to mark that history.”
Watkins graduated from West High School and the University of Wisconsin-Madison and had a career in theater before returning to Madison.
She had a passion for marketing, visual arts, fashion and social media.
As an alder and the founder of the Progress Center, Madison’s work is focused on elevating the roles and lives of Black women in Madison.
“It’s one of those things, here’s another Black woman who feels invisible,” she said. “It’s important to mark this history because downtown has changed over the last couple of years. But at minimum, it’s a central place for folks coming to Madison, whether you live here or travel to Madison, it’s iconic.
“The Capitol is there, State Street is there, the university is there. This Black woman’s history in downtown Madison should not be invisible. It’s important that the general public knows that yes, this person, too, made a contribution in the small business community, especially.”
Watkins also held positions selling advertising and custom wrapping paper, and promoted Dane Buy Local. She spent another seven years at Hilldale Shopping Center. In the last four years, she served as its marketing and social media manager and one of her annual duties was hiring Santa Claus.
Madison is hoping this resolution is a start in finding a way to honor the life and work of Leslie Watkins permanently.
“This is for me, a series of things that I plan to do in order to bring attention to this history and get some sort of permanency to acknowledge her history,” Madison said.
Madison specifically thanked James Tye III, Cedric Johnson, Chuck Bauer, Sheri Carter, Dino Maniaci and Watkins’ family members and loved ones who supported her in creating the resolution to begin work to honor the life of a phenomenal Black woman.