top of page
  • Writer's pictureValerie Harris

An Elite Upbringing

"I remember being taken to the art galleries in Hartford many times...I cannot remember a time I did not have a great thrill with my paints and pencils."

Laura Wheeler (Waring) was born at 47 Fairmount Street, Hartford , Ct,  May 26, 1887
The Wheeler House, Hartford, CT

Laura Wheeler was born May 26, 1887, at 47 Fairmount Street in Hartford, Connecticut the second daughter of the Reverend Robert F. and Mary Christiana Freeman Wheeler. Her birth came almost a year to the day that the Wheelers, relocating from Brooklyn, New York, arrived in Hartford, where Rev. Wheeler took over the pastorate of #TalcottStreetCongregationalChurch, one of the oldest and most active Black churches in the city. Laura Wheeler was a native-born New Englander, and, like her mother, born in Portland, Maine thirty-five years before, would forever take pride in her New England roots.

As the “first family” of Talcott Street Congregational, the Wheelers were of course considered among the most respectable or the "best" colored families. The Wheeler home, however, was not one of the better residences; Reverend Wheeler did not even hold the mortgage on it. The family lived in the church’s parsonage-- an 1853 eight-room frame house having no gas, no electricity, and an outhouse inconveniently situated several feet away from the back door. Interestingly, Mrs. Wheeler had lived in the house for several years as a child, when her father, Reverend #AmosNoëFreeman, now a well-known Brooklyn-based Presbyterian minister, had briefly pastored the Talcott Street Church. The house had changed little since Mary Freeman had lived there, and as Mrs. Wheeler, she was not the happiest of homemakers. It’s likely that she considered that the best thing about the parsonage was its location several blocks away from Talcott Street church, away from the homes of most of Hartford’s other Black residents and just inside the border of eligibility for attendance at #HartfordHighSchool, which was known as the “high school of the future” because of its advanced science labs and other facilities. The children of Hartford’s privileged White families went to Hartford High School, and the Wheeler children –Mary Alice, Laura, Arthur, and Lloyd—went there, too.

The children’s eligibility to attend Hartford High was a huge fringe benefit, since the pastor's salary from the church afforded few luxuries for the family of six, and education was important to Reverend and Mary Freeman Wheeler. They were both among that small segment of African Americans who attended college in the post-Civil War era of the 1870s, and among the black elite, actual wealth counted far less than education and personal refinement in determining one's place on the social scale. According to the Wheelers and other members of the African American middle class, education, culture, and service aimed at uplifting the race were the true hallmarks of a person’s real worth.

The Wheeler household operated along lines similar to those of other middle-class families or “strivers” in the late 19th century, complete with the books, music, cultural outings, and periodicals that symbolized the values and refinement of the “emerged” rather than the underclass of the colored race. In addition to richly illustrated children’s books and a book of bible stories, it’s likely that Laura Wheeler could peruse among her father’s collection a copy of William Still's #TheUndergroundRailroad, in which could be found the story of Grandfather #AmosNoëFreeman's daring delivery of the young fugitive, Maria Weems to freedom in Canada. And there would surely have been a copy of Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive, and Rising, an anthology of noted achievers of the race published in 1887, the year of Laura’s birth. Chapter VI of the volume was devoted to the Honorable Jeremiah A. Brown, or Uncle Jere, elected to the Ohio legislature in 1885. Uncle Jere was married to Rev. Wheeler’s sister, Mary Ann Wheeler Brown. Both #ReverendRobertWheeler and his brother, Uncle Lloyd G. Wheeler, an attorney and prominent member of Chicago’s Black society, were mentioned in this chapter, a fact of which the family was certainly quite proud.

Another aspect of the Wheeler children's upbringing which may have distinguished them from their fellow church members was exposure to the fine arts of painting and sculpture. What better place in which to practice respectability and decorum than in the quiet refinement of an art gallery? Among the venues available to the Wheelers was Hartford's Wadsworth Athenaeum. Founded in 1842, the Athenaeum was housed in a massive castle-like 1844 building at the southern end of Main Street and, after undergoing a major reconstruction, was rededicated with much public fanfare in 1893. The new Wadsworth Athenaeum comprised two galleries of painting and sculpture which the public could now visit free of charge, the twenty-five cents admission fee having been dropped.

"I remember being taken to the art galleries in Hartford many times," the artist, Laura Wheeler Waring would later write, "and I suppose my delight in them was not only because of the outing it gave me but perhaps I had a love for the paintings -- the color, the beauty of the galleries. I noticed, particularly, the portraits. I often drew them at home. In fact, I cannot remember a time I did not have a great thrill with my paints and pencils. My father always provided us with these and seemed to enjoy watching us draw and paint."

© 2023-2026 Valerie Harris. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Terms of Use



Christina Cook
Christina Cook

So interesting!

Valerie Harris
Valerie Harris

Thanks so much!

bottom of page