Jacob Francis Wheaton’s home in Hagerstown, Maryland was the last stop on the Underground Railroad before crossing over to Pennsylvania. His family members (Buckinghams, Wheatons, and Bruners) owned homes in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan and were coopers and sextons by trade.
Jacob Wheaton was born on February 14, 1835, as a free African American to parents Francis Wheaton and Mary Buckingham Wheaton of Middletown, Frederick, Maryland. In the 1840 census, his father and older brothers were listed as employed in manufacture and trade. His Buckingham grandparents were an interracial married couple – Thomas Buckingham was white, and Margaret Mary Jones Buckingham was described as having a yellow complexion in official records.
Wheaton moved to Hagerstown in the 1850s and worked as a sexton, then as a nurse during and after the Civil War. He is attributed with helping to combat the smallpox epidemic in 1863. One obituary states that Wheaton served in the 54th Mass Regiment with Sergeant William Carney, attending Grand Army meetings annually. Many of his family members served in the Civil War as well (two brothers, two brothers-in-law, and two uncles). His brother, Horace Wheaton, died as a prisoner of war in a Confederate prison camp near Tallahassee, Florida in 1864.
Jacob Wheaton was the first African American to cast his vote in Maryland after the Civil War in the election for mayor of Hagerstown in the spring of 1868 and according to his obituary, he never missed an opportunity to cast his vote until his death. In 1885, he was accused of assaulting a white woman but did not suffer the consequences that befell many African American men at that time. Three years after that incident, Wheaton helped establish North Street School in 1888, which would provide a high school education in Hagerstown for “colored” children. Many decades later, Wheaton’s great nephew Professor John W. Bruner would follow his lead and help found a high school for “colored” children in Jacob’s birthplace of Frederick, Maryland.
In 1897, Wheaton became the first African American in Washington county to serve on the petit jury, deciding on a civil appeal case in Circuit Court. Wheaton served as a Bailiff for a forty-year period until his retirement.
Wheaton was featured in the social sections of the Baltimore Afro-American for hosting Madame C. J. Walker of Indianapolis as one of her first stops during her tour of the U.S. and for his attendance at the elaborate 52nd birthday party of Mrs. Mary Fitzhugh, hosted by her husband Juan.
Though his children experienced their own success, of note, Wheaton was father to J. Frank/Francis Wheaton, a famed orator, attorney, the first African American state legislator in Minnesota, and who earlier had held the position of district attorney in New York City.
The City of Hagerstown honored Jacob Wheaton with burial as a Civil War veteran in the Rose Hill Cemetery in 1924, and on July 18, 1935, built a park named after Jacob Wheaton for the “colored residential section of the city.” The opening ceremony was headed by Harry R. Rudy, chairman of the parks commission, and then Mayor I. M. Wertz. Wheaton Park had a reputation for its baseball diamond, tennis courts, and a bandstand. The Park and the bandstand remain to this day.
On September 21, 2013, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, Hagerstown renovated Wheaton’s grave marker, and May 16, 2015, Jacob Wheaton was honored as one of Hagerstown’s most notable citizens in a new memorial named the Circle of Achievement. Hayward Wheaton, who remembered his grandfather’s participation in the Underground Railroad, was there to accept the honor.