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  • Writer's pictureValerie Harris

Rev. and Mrs. Wheeler

Part I.

Victorian values were evident in American social life for much of the 19th century, especially among the middle and upper classes. Many African American families bought into the so-called “Victorian” ideal of separate spheres of influence for men and women, with men putting their focus on wage-earning work and the outer world of politics and current events, while women’s attention should be confined to raising children and maintaining the sanctity of the home. The husband/father was undoubtedly the authority figure and set the tone for family life which the wife/mother was to maintain, putting aside her elite education and foregoing any professional goals. Such was the family dynamic in Laura Wheeler’s home.

Rev. and Mrs. Wheeler, collage by Valerie Harris
Rev. and Mrs. Wheeler @

The father, Robert Foster Wheeler, was born on December 9,1850 in the small town of Mansfield, Ohio and raised primarily in Chatham, Ontario, Canada, where his family emigrated in the wake of the recently enacted Fugitive Slave Law. He studied theology at Howard University in Washington, DC, where he preached at a local mission and served as Chaplain at Freedmen's Hospital until his graduation from Howard in 1877. Robert then accepted the assignment of organizing the tiny Nazarene Mission in Brooklyn, New York into a church congregation.

Not long thereafter young Reverend Robert Wheeler made the acquaintance of the esteemed Reverend Amos Noë Freeman, and was a guest preacher at Siloam Presbyterian. It was there that Robert first set eyes on his soon-to-be wife, Mary Christiana Freeman, who, possessing a lovely contralto voice, was a soloist in the choir. Unable to keep his mind off the beautiful young lady sitting behind him as he spoke from the pulpit, Robert was eager to take Amos up on his invitation to come to dinner and meet the family, particularly his youngest daughter, Mary. The following year, on December 21, 1880, that charming songbird became Mrs. Robert Wheeler, the service taking place at her parents' home, with Amos officiating.

"Forgetting what lies behind and pressing forward..."

Prior to her marriage, Mary C. Freeman was an intelligent young miss with a mind for science that was perhaps overshadowed by her talent for music. At 17 she left home to attend Oberlin Institute, arriving in 1869 with a huge, monogrammed trunk full of stylish clothes, expertly sewn by her mother. While at Oberlin, she enjoyed the company of other girls of similar background, and studied natural science, mathematics, English literature, Latin, French, and drawing, among other subjects. Upon obtaining her diploma and returning home, very well educated for a young woman of her day, she would have been delighted to read the brief item that appeared in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on Friday, August 8, 1873, announcing that on Tuesday, last, thirty young women had graduated from Oberlin College. "In the class was Miss Mary C. Freeman, of this city."

Mary's immensely proud father immediately set about using his influence to secure for her a position at Colored School No. 1 where Charles Dorsey, his colleague and parishioner at Siloam Presbyterian, was principal. That autumn, Mary C. Freeman was gainfully employed as a teacher at Colored School No. 1, continuing there until she married seven years later.

Economically independent while enjoying the comforts of her parents’ home, Mary C. became very active in the church, participating on committees and helping her father to organize excursions and fund-raising fairs. Her visibility in the community was evidenced by several newspaper mentions of her various school and church-affiliated activities. It seemed she was always on the go. Life, for young Mary Christiana Freeman, was good.

At the start of her marriage, Mary C. was in all things a dutiful wife. In order to cleave unto her husband, she immediately abdicated two occupations that gave her status within her Brooklyn community: her position as teacher at Colored School #1 and her place of prominence in her father's church, as she now attended the fledgling Nazarene Congregational Church where Robert was pastor.

Within a year and a half, Mary C. gave birth to her first child, who was stillborn. Soon after, in 1883, the couple's first daughter, Mary Alice, nicknamed Kit, was born. That year, perhaps resisting the pressure to limit her attention solely to home and family, and seeking to reclaim some aspect of her previous identity, Mary C. attended the tenth reunion of her class at Oberlin. She made the journey by train to Ohio, bringing along her six-month old daughter and depositing her in Cleveland with Robert's sister. But after this one foray into her favored past, there is no evidence of Mary C. ever retuning to Oberlin. She no longer had income of her own to contribute to her alma mater or resources for such extravagances.

Brooklyn in 1886 was abuzz with cultural and progressive activity but by then Robert and Mary C. Wheeler were preparing to relocate. When Robert accepted the call to pastor Talcott Street Congregational Church in Hartford, it was with the support of his well-connected and ever optimistic father-in-law, Amos Freeman, who had every reason to believe that his well-trained daughter would fulfill the duties of a minister's wife in that new yet familiar city in the same commendable way her mother had years before.

However, Mary C. Freeman Wheeler’s effervescence soon began to fade. When the small family moved into the same church-owned house where she had briefly lived as child when Amos Freeman pastored Talcott, when she saw the same dog-eared shelves in the basement that her father had put up at her mother's request, perhaps she felt let down. Life was not turning out as she'd expected. Hartford was a far cry from Brooklyn and she took scant interest in the gatherings and benevolent societies organized by the women of Talcott Congregational Church, which was unusual for the wife of a pastor.

© 2023-2026 Valerie Harris. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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Christina Cook
Christina Cook
Jan 30

How fascinating! and very relatable. Thank you for bringing this story to life!!

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