Life & Times
African American Wilson Bruce Evans was born free in the Piedmont region of North Carolina in 1824. His mother was Fanny Evans, a free woman of color who owned property and headed her own household in Hillsborough, Orange County, northwest of Raleigh.
Following in the path of his older brother Henry, Wilson as a youth learned to read and write and gained proficiency in woodworking. In the federal census of 1850, both Evans brothers were listed as cabinetmakers residing in Hillsborough. Henry Evans married Henrietta Leary, daughter of the prominent African American saddle- and harness-maker Matthew Leary of Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1843. In the 1850 census Henry was recorded as the head of a household that included not only his wife but also four young children, his mother, and another cabinetmaker. Wilson, still single, resided separately in a small boardinghouse operated by a Black matron. Under the census column titled “Color,” he was identified as “M” for Mulatto.
On May 23, 1853, Wilson again followed in Henry’s footsteps by marrying Sarah Jane Leary, Henrietta’s younger sister. Eleven months later, Wilson and Sarah Jane left North Carolina in search of a better life in Ohio. Bringing with them a new baby, they headed northward as part of a sizable contingent of family and friends that included Henry and Henrietta Evans, their children, and seven other free persons of color. They traveled under the protection of North Carolina’s governor, who had been advised by a pair of white gentlemen from Fayetteville that the Evanses were “entitled to as much respect and regard as any Colored family in our State.”
After stopping in Cincinnati, Ohio, the migrants made their way to Oberlin not only because of the town’s reputation for racial tolerance but also because Wilson and Henry’s sister Delilah and her husband John Copeland already resided there. The Copeland-Evans-Leary family network would play a major role in the radicalization of Oberlin abolitionism over the next half-dozen years.
Upon arriving in Oberlin in the spring of 1854, Henry and Wilson Bruce Evans opened a cabinetmaking establishment, which quickly proved financially successful. With Henry’s help, Wilson also set about erecting a residence for his family on the eastern block of Mill Street—today’s East Vine Street. More than a century and a half later, it remains remarkably intact—enduring evidence of the brothers’ great skill, energy, and talent. By 1866, Wilson Bruce Evans and Sarah Jane Leary Evans had filled their home with six children.
In keeping with the Oberlin ethos, Wilson took an active part in public affairs. Under the Ohio state constitution adopted in 1803, suffrage was restricted to taxpaying white men over the age of 21. In 1842, however, the state’s supreme court ruled that for legal purposes “white” included anyone with over 50 percent white ancestry. By this standard, Wilson Bruce Evans qualified to vote, and a surviving poll list documents that he was one of the 24 African Americans to cast ballots in Oberlin in the fall elections of 1855. Three years later, he took part in the famous Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, an incident that has given rise to Oberlin’s reputation as “the town that started the Civil War.”
Founded in 1833, Oberlin was long known for its support of fugitives fleeing slavery on the Underground Railroad. Local leaders boasted publicly that no fugitive had ever been captured while sojourning or residing in the community. So when news reached Oberlin in the early afternoon of September 13, 1858, that a pair of slave hunters, aided by a U.S. deputy marshal and his assistant, had seized freedom seeker John Price and were taking him to Wellington–nine miles away–in order to put him on a southbound train and deliver him back to bondage, townspeople sprang into action. They raced to Wellington by horse and buggy, by wagon, by horse alone, and on foot. Once there, they surrounded Wadsworth’s Hotel, where Price and his captors were holed up while awaiting the train to arrive in the early evening. After efforts to negotiate Price’s release collapsed, members of the crowd, including Wilson Bruce Evans, pushed their way into the hotel and liberated Price by force without injuring anyone in the process. Price was then whisked away to Oberlin, where he hid for a few days in a professor’s house before heading off to safety in Canada.
Local abolitionists celebrated the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue as the righteous triumph of moral principle over the abominable evil of slavery. National authorities, however, viewed it as an example of irresponsible vigilantism that threatened the country’s legal and social order. On December 6, 1858, a federal grand jury indicted 37 men, including Wilson Bruce Evans and Henry Evans, for violating the national Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Initially the indicted Rescuers were released on their own recognizance, and the first trial of a Rescuer, Simeon Bushnell, began on April 5, 1859. Nobody was surprised when Bushnell was found guilty ten days later, but defense attorneys were shocked when the judge announced that the other defendants would be tried by the same jury that had convicted Bushnell. In response to the attorneys’ objection, the judge ordered the defendants remanded to jail while the controversy was adjudicated. Recognizing an opportunity to advance their cause in the court of public opinion, the Rescuers complied without complaint, and most chose to stay in jail even after the judge reversed his decision about seating the same jury for future cases.
Both Henry and Wilson Evans spent 83 days confined to the Cuyahoga County Jail awaiting trial. Yet their cases were never heard. After winning the conviction of Charles Langston, John Mercer Langston’s brother, federal prosecutors dropped the charges against the remaining Rescuers for a mix of political and legal reasons. On July 6, 1859, the Oberlin Rescuers returned to a heroes’ welcome in their hometown. Speaking to the multitude assembled at First Church that evening, Henry Evans gave thanks to the Oberlin community and to God as he celebrated “a victory on the side of truth, a triumph, indeed, over wrong.”
Three months later, Lewis Sheridan Leary—a brother of Sarah Jane Leary Evans—and John Anthony Copeland—a son of Henry and Wilson’s sister Delilah Evans Copeland—put their lives on the line for the same cause. Leaving Oberlin without alerting their families to their mission, they joined John Brown’s band of holy warriors that attacked the United States armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, on October 16, 1859. Brown’s plan was to seize federal munitions and thereby trigger a massive slave rebellion in the South.
Although Brown and his followers succeeded in occupying the armory, they soon found themselves surrounded by local militia and then by federal troops under the command of Robert E. Lee. Lewis Sheridan Leary died while trying to escape; John Anthony Copeland was captured, nearly lynched, and jailed. John Brown was also captured, and as ringleader of the scheme, he was promptly put on trial for treason. Although he was found guilty and sentenced to die, his dignified behavior throughout the proceedings inspired a growing number of antislavery Northerners to view him as a martyr, not a fanatic. Many previously pacifist abolitionists came to agree with Brown that violence for the cause of ending human bondage was morally justified.
On December 2, 1859, the day Brown was hanged, Oberlin’s chapel bell rang for an hour to honor his righteousness. Two weeks later, upon hearing news that John Anthony Copeland had likewise been executed, townspeople gathered at the college chapel to pay tribute to his self-sacrifice. By consensus they determined that evening “to erect a monument . . . in memory of Leary and Copeland, our martyred fellow-citizens.” (Installed initially in Westwood Cemetery after the Civil War concluded, the monument stands today in Martin Luther King Park, directly opposite the Wilson Bruce Evans home.)
Financially, the Evans families prospered during the late 1850s. According to local tax records, the value of “H. Evans and Brother,” as Henry and Wilson Bruce styled their partnership, more than tripled between 1855 and 1860. In 1856 they purchased a former college dormitory on South Main Street for use as a furniture wareroom, which they subsequently moved to Mill Street. But in January 1861 disaster struck. Henry suffered a gruesome injury while operating a steam planing machine. An iron wrench fell from a beam above, ricocheted off the machine, and “was hurled with terrible force” at his head, breaking his nose, blinding one eye, and turning his entire face into “a mass of mangled flesh.” Henry gradually recovered from the accident, but the brothers experienced a further setback three years later when their shop burned down in one of Oberlin’s periodic fires. The firm of H. Evans and Brother survived, but in 1865 it was assessed at only a quarter of its value five years earlier.
On August 30, 1864, with the fate of the Union and of Emancipation hinging on the military outcome of the Civil War, Wilson Bruce Evans, 40 years old, enlisted in the Union army. Although he was identified as “Col[ore]d” when he registered for the draft the previous year, upon his enlistment he was assigned to Company D of the 178th Regiment Ohio Voluntary Infantry, a unit composed mainly of white soldiers. In late September, the 178th was sent to Nashville, and it spent the fall moving from place to place in Tennessee, providing secondary support for units engaged in the fighting. After Union forces triumphed in the Battle of Nashville in late December, the 178th was transferred to Washington D.C. and then to North Carolina. But in January 1865 Wilson was dispatched separately to the post commissary in Tullahoma, Tennessee. He never saw combat and mustered out with his company at the end of June.
In the decades following the Civil War, Henry Evans and Wilson Bruce Evans pursued increasingly divergent paths. In the 1870s, Henry rented out his house in Oberlin and relocated with his family to Washington, D.C. Wilson, Sarah Jane and most of their children chose instead to remain in Oberlin, where Wilson continued to make and sell furniture. He also manufactured caskets and served as a funeral director. The 1887 city directory listed his primary occupation as “undertaker.”
As they entered their senior years, Wilson Bruce Evans and Sarah Jane Leary Evans were highly regarded and widely respected members of the Oberlin community. Two of their daughters graduated from Oberlin College, while their son succeeded in business. In 1890 Wilson Bruce Evans ranked around the midpoint of Oberlin taxpayers. But his health had begun to deteriorate, and that same year he applied successfully for a military pension. Among the documents that he submitted in making his case was his neighbors’ testimony that he was “now old and somewhat broken down.”
Sarah Jane Leary Evans died in May 1898 at the age of 68. Wilson Bruce Evans died four months later at the age of 74. They were buried next to each other in Westwood Cemetery, though today only his grave is marked by a surviving headstone.