Black Organizing in Pre-Civil War Illinois: Creating Community, Demanding Justice

West Herrick Avenue, Wellington, Ohio
Liberty Street, later renamed West Herrick Avenue, pictured here in the early twentieth century, was the location of the restaurant run by Robert, Sarah’s husband, in Wellington, Ohio, in the 1880s. (Source: Wellington family album: Photo 970114, Herrick Memorial Library. Courtesy of Herrick Memorial Library.)

Sarah Ann Wiggins Robinson, wife of the prominent activist Robert Jonathan (R. J.) Robinson, raised daughters who became teachers and reformers.

Sarah Wiggins was born in 1817, probably in Alexandria, Virginia. Four years later, her enslaver manumitted her, along with her mother and two siblings. In 1834, when she was seventeen, Sarah applied for free papers in Washington, D.C. She soon moved to Illinois, and in 1837 she married R. J. Robinson, who was then working as a barber in Springfield. In an oral history, Robinson later said they were the first African American couple to marry west of the Illinois River.1

In the 1840s and 1850s, the family lived in Alton, on the Mississippi River, where Robert became a leader in the Wood River Colored Baptist Association. Between 1838 and 1859, Sarah Ann and Robert had eight children: Jonathan (b. 1838), Joseph (b. 1841), James (b. 1843), Eugene (b. 1846), Mary L. (b. 1848), Richarditha (b. 1851), Sarah E. (b. 1856), and Edward (b. 1859).2

In 1860, the family left Alton for Wellington, Ohio, probably in search of greater opportunities for themselves and, especially, their children. Three of their sons served in the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Meanwhile, Sarah Ann’s daughters and granddaughters became teachers and reformers. Her daughter Mary Louise graduated from Oberlin in 1870 and worked as a teacher before marrying James H. Meriwether, a graduate of Howard University who became a successful lawyer in Washington, DC. Another daughter, Sarah, was involved with the Wellington chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.3

Sarah Ann Robinson’s Residence at 1822 13th St NW, Washington, DC, in 1949
The arrow indicates where Sarah Ann Robinson lived with her daughter Mary and her family in 1900. (Source: WY 2084.35, John P. Wymer photograph collection, DC History Center. Courtesy of DC History Center.)

After Robert died in 1890, Sarah Ann and her daughter Sarah joined Mary and her husband in Washington, DC. Sarah Ann Robinson passed away on Feb. 9, 1906, at the age of eighty-nine, and was laid to rest next to her husband in Wellington, Ohio.4

Sarah Ann’s granddaughters, the children of Mary and James, carried on their family’s tradition of education and activism. One granddaughter, Edith Meriwether, attended high school and normal school in Washington, D.C., before beginning a career in teaching and eventually marrying Booker T. Washington’s son, Ernest Davidson Washington. Another granddaughter, Sarah Meriwether Nutter, attended Howard University and helped organize ​​Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the first sorority founded by African American women. A third granddaughter, Mary Ellen Meriwether Henderson, fought for school desegregation in Falls Church, Virginia, and helped found the first rural branch of the NAACP, the Colored Citizens Protective League.5

The Robinsons’ legacy also continued in Wellington, Ohio, where Sarah Ann and R.J.’s granddaughter, Edith Robinson, served as the village librarian for decades and was active in a variety of social organizations in the area.6

Edith Robinson, circa 1930
Edith Robinson, Sarah Ann Robinson’s granddaughter, worked as a librarian at the Herrick Memorial Library in Wellington for thirty years. (Source: Wellington family album: Photo 970797, Herrick Memorial Library. Courtesy of Herrick Memorial Library.)


Written by Hope McCaffrey. Edited by Kate Masur.


  1. 1850 US Census: Sarah Robinson,; History of Lorain County Ohio, with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers (Philadelphia: Williams Brothers, 1879), 366; Marilyn Wainio to Hope McCaffrey, email, Nov. 23, 2021, enclosing Agnes Wiggins registration records, Slave Emancipation Registry book, Madison County, Illinois.
  2. 1850 US Census: R. J. Robinson family; 1880 US Census: R. J. Robinson family,; Wainio to McCaffrey.
  3. History of Lorain County, 366; “Mrs. Mary L. Meriwether to Be Buried Tomorrow,” Evening Star (Washington, DC), April 8, 1942; “Local and Miscellaneous — Miss Sarah Robinson read an essay at the W.C.T.U. last Friday,” The Enterprise (Wellington, OH), Jan. 16, 1884; “Died at Washington,” The Elyria Reporter, February 12, 1906; Wainio to McCaffrey, enclosing Mary Louise Robinson response to Oberlin College questionnaire, March 15, 1935; “James H. Meriwether,”,, accessed Sep. 7, 2021,
  4. “Personal Mention,” The Enterprise, Jan. 21, 1891; “Died at Washington,” The Elyria Reporter, Feb. 12, 1906; 1900 United States Federal Census,; Bill Miller, “Sarah A. Robinson,” Find a Grave, accessed Sep. 7, 2021,
  5. “Died. Robinson,” Evening Star, Feb. 11, 1906; “James H. Meriwether,”; “Sarah H. Meriwether-Nutter,” Women’s Activism.NYC, accessed Sep. 7, 2021,; Cathy Taylor, Historic Falls Church (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2012), 69-74, 102.
  6. Marilyn Wainio to Hope McCaffrey, email, Dec. 8, 2021.