Shortly before his death in 1909, a husband and wife from Chicago boarded a train and headed south, their destination a relatively new place of higher education in rural Alabama. The couple was no stranger to southern life, having spent years living in Arkansas some three decades before. On this occasion, however, the man was leaving behind a set of business difficulties and accepting a position which had been offered to him by a long-time friend.
The friend’s name? Booker T. Washington.
The place of higher education? The Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Wheeler was born in Mansfield on May 29, 1848, the son of gunsmith Hiram Wheeler and his wife Juliet Miller Wheeler. Hiram was the only African-American gunsmith in Mansfield at the time. Born in Virginia in 1807, he was the illegitimate son of a slaveowner by the name of Wheeler; when Hiram was four, the slaveowner died and in his will emancipated all 11 of his slaves.
It is said that Hiram’s gun shop was in the first block of Park Avenue East, with the Wheeler house in the second block of East Third Street. Hiram was active on the Underground Railroad, serving as an “agent,” and then fled to Canada with his family in 1860 in fear that family members might be enslaved after changes in Ohio law.
In the 1850 census, the Wheeler family was registered as “mulatto,” and Lloyd’s age is quizzically listed as 12. This was apparently a mistake, as he was again listed as age 12 in the 1861 census records of Chatham, Ontario, Canada.
In the 1860s, Lloyd Wheeler moved to Chicago, and came to read in the law office of one George G. Bellows. He was then admitted but apparently did not finish the precursor of Northwestern University Law School (collegiate legal education was not required at the time), and successfully took the bar exam in 1869.
He subsequently became the first African-American to obtain a law license in the State of Illinois.
In 1870, Wheeler married Ranie Petit, the niece and adopted daughter of John Jones. Jones was a friend of abolitionists Frederick Douglas and John Brown, and was the richest African-American in Chicago at the time. That same year, the Wheelers moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, starting another chapter in their lives.
Monday: Part Two
Sources: The Association of Ohio Longrifle Collectors Newsletter/August 2014; Wikipedia; FindAGrave; Unedited Notes for Presentation by Lloyd G. Wheeler At the First Wheeler Family Reunion
Photo: Chicago, circa 1870 – Public Domain