Sarah Jane Evans (Nee Leary)
The saga of the North Carolina Leary family history is an extraordinary one. The Leary family was both freeborn and mixed race and somehow became able to negotiate the nearly impossible paths of strained race relations and suppressive race laws in an era when slavery was but a slippery step away. The Leary family traversed that path with unimaginable success.
Sarah Jane’s Leary’s paternal grandparents were Jeremiah O’Leary (born ~1765), and Sarah Jane/ Sallie Revels (born ~1780) in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Jeremiah O’Leary, a descendant of Irish immigrants, fought in the American Revolution under General Nathaniel Greene. Sallie Revels was of African, European and Native American Croatan descent. Sallie’s father Aaron Revels also was a veteran of the American Revolution.
On February 15, 1802, , Matthew Nathaniel Leary was born in Sampson County, North Carolina to Jeremiah and Sallie, their only known child. According to Enoch Manual and Croatan oral history, Enoch’s ancestor Nickey Manuel, a member of the Croatan tribe, raised Matthew. Later, as a youth Matthew learned the trade of harness and saddle-making in Cumberland County, North Carolina. Jeremiah eventually was able to purchase his own business. Not only was he an extremely successful businessman, but he also eventually owned plantations and slaves.
Less is known regarding Sarah Jane’s maternal lineage, though her mother Juliette Anna Meimoriel (Memerel/Menriel) was the daughter of Mariette Scolastique Huillard known as “French Mary” and most likely came from the island of Guadeloupe. “French Mary” also had two known sons: John Ochiltree (born Jean Memorelle in 1809 in Fayetteville) and Lewis Wright Levy (born in 1820 in Fayetteville). Both of Juliette’s brothers are listed as saddlers in the 1850 Census.
Sarah Jane’s parents married in 1825. Over the years Matthew and Julliette had at least seven children: Henrietta R. Leary, Sarah Jane Leary, Matthew Nathaniel Leary Jr., Lewis Sheridan Leary, Julia Anna Leary, Mary Elizabeth Leary, and John Sinclair Leary.
The Life of Sarah Jane
In 1829, Sarah Jane Leary (Evans), is born free in Fayetteville, Cumberland County, North Carolina to Matthew Leary Sr. and his wife Juliette (Julia).
The Leary home is run comfortably and efficiently, and even employs a German woman to attend to the household laundry. Education, religion and music play significant roles in the strictly Episcopalian family. The children are well educated, primarily through private tutors. Evidence of the importance of music in the family is seen through Matthew Sr. helping organize the St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church of Fayetteville and directing the choir. Later, daughter Mary Elizabeth becomes the church organist.
The decade of the 1850s is a critical period in the life of Sarah Jane Leary. For a reason not in evidence, Sarah Jane Leary, at the age of 21, is found living in Raleigh, North Carolina with the family of John and Cherry Malone who manage a livery stable. No occupation for Sarah Jane is listed.
On May 25, 1853, at the age of 23, Sarah Jane marries Wilson Bruce Evans of Hillsborough, North Carolina. He is a cabinetmaker and the younger brother of Henry Evans, also a cabinet maker. Further, Henry is the husband of Sarah Jane’s older sister Henrietta. Eleven months after the marriage, Sarah Jane gives birth to her first child. Within a few months thereafter, Sarah Jane and Wilson, along with a sizable contingency of other free persons of color that include her sister Henrietta Leary Evans and her large family, depart for Ohio. Henrietta has six children under age ten, including a newborn son John, and Sarah Jane has her son Matthew. According to William E. Bigglestone, the overall trip takes three arduous months by ox cart, boat and train. Upon reaching Ohio, they stay in Cincinnati, Ohio, before eventually going on to Oberlin, Ohio. It is possible that Wilson Bruce Evans takes a trip to Oberlin, Ohio to acquire property aforehand, for there is a property deed that indicates that he acquired land in Oberlin within the three month time period. Oberlin is an abolitionist community and also the location of the first college in the nation to have a policy to admit students to its institution regardless of color. Wilson and Henry’s sister Delilah Evans Copeland and her spouse John Copeland Sr., having come to Oberlin some ten years before, are there to greet the weary travelers.
By 1858, the Evans brothers have opened up their cabinetry business and become active in abolitionist work. As a consequence of their participation in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of freedom seeker John Price, the brothers are jailed in Cleveland, leaving their wives alone to take care of the household, children and business.
Sarah Jane’s brother Lewis Sheridan Leary emigrates to Oberlin. Soon after arrival he marries Mary Sampson Patterson, who comes from another family of Fayetteville emigrants. Despite their having a newborn daughter, Lewis feels compelled to take part in the John Brown raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in late 1859. He is killed in action. Additional family tragedy occurs when Sarah Jane’s sister-in-law’s son John Copeland Jr. is hanged in December 1859 for his role with John Brown.
The 1860s continue the pattern of hardship and family misfortune. Near the beginning of the Civil War, Henry Evans is severely injured and disfigured while working in the family business, putting the burden on to Wilson to keep things going. Nevertheless, Wilson feels compelled to join the Union Army and does so in 1864 at age forty. Sarah Jane tends home, hearth and children.
The 1870s start out with continued strife. Sarah Janes’s sister Henrietta and her family move to Washington, D.C. leaving Wilson to run the business. Even more tragically, Sarah Jane and Wilson lose five of their eight children to death between 1871-1875. The one bright note in this period of her life is the completion of her lovely brick home located on Mill Street (now Vine Street) in Oberlin
By the 1880s, with two daughters attending Oberlin College, the family takes in student boarders to augment the household income. Daughter Julia Anna graduates Oberlin College and marries in 1880. Proudly a second daughter, her namesake Sarah Jane, graduates Oberlin College and marries in 1890.
In the 1890s age and failing health overtake the couple — severe rheumatism for Wilson and blindness for Sarah Jane. The couple die within five months of each other in 1898. They are buried next to each other in Westwood Cemetery, though only Wilson’s gravesite has a marker.
Undoubtedly, Sarah Jane Leary Evans was a strong and resilient woman who persevered through whatever hardship faced her. According to her son-in-law, Thomas Inborden, Sarah Jane ran a strict and disciplined home. She was a staunch Republican — party of Lincoln — and a prohibitionist who, though she could not vote, no doubt made her voice heard.
From local newspaper articles of the time, Sarah Jane must also have been highly respected and endeared by friends and neighbors. According to one local newspaper article, nearly 100 people gathered on her lawn to surprise her and wish her well on her 51st birthday. Another local newspaper noted that on the occasion of the marriage of her daughter Julia, more than 200 invitations were sent out.
The legacy of success of her children speaks to the existence of a great woman of her time.
Many pictures have been found of Sarah Jane Evans Inborden, which have been mistakenly identified as the subject of this article. Sadly, to date no picture of the great lady herself has been located.
Also, several on-line services as well as personal family trees misidentify the year of death for Sarah Jane Leary Evans as 1900. Her year of death is 1898.