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  • Writer's pictureValerie Harris

The Spark of Ambition

Miss Wheeler at
The Spark of Ambition at

On Friday, June 22, 1906, Laura Wheeler walked in procession with the chosen few of her class, up the center aisle of the large auditorium, and took her seat on the stage as part of the commencement exercises at Hartford High School. The solidly built girl, broad of face and square of jaw, was one of less than a hand full of colored pupils out of an unusually large class of one hundred forty-nine, and she would have the honor of being one of only 11 student orators on the day.  She walked proudly, a young woman of 19 and a model of propriety, from the gentle swish of the skirt that fell just short of her ankles, to her softly flowing hair smartly pompadoured in the fashion of the day, her head held erect above the high collar of her starched white shirtwaist. 

Laura Wheeler's classmates at Hartford High School were children of privilege, the sons and daughters of families for whom Hartford's streets, parks, businesses and institutions were named. The school, an imposing Gothic building, was erected in 1883 in the fashionable neighborhood of Asylum Hill, not far from the State Capitol Building and close to the magnificent Victorian, Queen Anne, Tudor and Romanesque-styled residences of the city's decision makers and celebrities past and present, among these the authors Harriet Beecher Stowe and Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain.


By the early 20th century, Hartford High School, dubbed 'the school of the future,'  had gained the reputation of being one of the top secondary schools not only in New England, but in the nation. The children of all of the best families attended Hartford High School--and all of the Wheeler siblings did too, thanks to a city ordinance that decreed that children could attend the secondary school within the district in which they lived.


 Within Hartford's small African American community-- at that time, no more than two percent of the city's total population--the Wheelers, though far from wealthy, were considered among the "best"  colored families, the father, Reverend Robert F. Wheeler, being pastor of one of the city's oldest and most active black churches, Talcott Street Congregational Church. The family lived in the parsonage-- an 1853 mid-sized frame house having no gas, no electricity, and an outhouse inconveniently situated several feet away from the back door. Fortuitously,  the parsonage was located several blocks away from Talcott Street church and the homes of most of the other black residents, placing the Wheelers just inside the border of eligibility for attendance at Hartford High.

Laura Wheeler's commencement day speech in its entirety is lost to us, but according to The Hartford Courant article that appeared the following day, her topic was the "Discouragement of An Art Student".

Determined Miss Wheeler at
The Spark of Ambition at

Laura's speech in its entirety is lost to us, but according to The Hartford Courant article that appeared the following day, the discouragement she described was in no way unique. She commented on the efforts that any talented child would make, in drawing a landscape or a portrait of one of the family, and the remarks with which those efforts would be met. 

“What is it, a spider?” says one on being shown an apple tree blooming on a hillside," Laura Wheeler shared with the audience in her characteristically good natured way.

However, on that day in June 1906, Laura's oratory hinted at a greater degree of complexity confronting her in her quest, concluding: "From the very beginning to the time when fame is won the artist’s path is full of thorns and prickers, lightened only by the spark of ambition.”


It was Laura's desire to pursue her subsequent education at the Pennsylvania Academy of  the Fine Art. She had determined to become a professional artist.  Her parents were not pleased.


© 2023-2026 Valerie Harris.


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