You could say Marilyn Wainio is obsessed with her home.
Yes, the outside of 138 Forest St. may need some paint and restoration. But what’s inside is one tenacious researcher.
Wainio and her husband, Jack, bought the house in 1989. Since then, she’s been uncovering the life and times of the Robinson family, which once built the home more than a century ago.
Her latest genealogic adventures have focused on R.J. Robinson, whom she calls “a Wellington treasure hidden in plain view.”
She also calls Robinson a visionary. He was a barber, preacher, restaurateur, and businessman. And he was the grandfather of the people in whose century house she now lives.
For Black History Month, Wainio has presented Robinson’s story to the Wellington Genealogy Group, of which she is president, and also to the Oberlin African-American Genealogy and History Group.
Wainio is clearly taken with Robinson. “He is a treasure and not that many people know about him,” she said.
The Robinson family built the home in 1911. Wainio learned that Edith Robinson, who owned the home with her brother, Will, was Wellington’s librarian for 29 years. No one else has held the position as long.
Will was a barber and businessman. At one point he sold bonds to help pave Wellington’s North Main Street. Both were of mixed race. Both were grandchildren of Robert J. Robinson.
Wainio kept digging. She was interested in Edith and Will, but felt she hit pay dirt when it came to Robert J. or R.J., as she calls him. He once cut hair for Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. He helped found the second oldest black church in Chicago. He advocated for equal rights for blacks including education and the right to vote.
He was born in Winchester, Va., in 1818 and came to Wellington in 1861, right after the start of the Civil War. He also had roots in Alton, Ill.
His children were also interesting: Jonathan was captured by rebels in 1861, Joseph was killed in the Civil War, and James was enlisted in the Third Regiment Colored Heavy Artillery. Mary Louise Robinson graduated from Oberlin College in 1870. His son Eugene was Edith and Will’s father. Another son, Edward Fairfax Robinson, was the last surviving Robinson, who passed away in 1944 in Wellington, and had owned Robinson’s Bakery.
Wainio’s research found that R.J. was 43 years old when he was allowed to cast his first vote, which was for Lincoln. He attended President Benjamin Harrison’s inauguration in 1889, though he had been denied the right to vote for his grandfather, William H. Harrison, in 1840.
R.J. became a preacher, helping start Zoar Baptist Church in Chicago. In 1853, he preached 184 times during the year, delivered 47 lectures, and visited families, travelling 2,103 miles along the way.
He was active with education for black children, even if it meant segregated schools. R.J. was appointed to the business committee for the State Convention of Colored Citizens seeking equal rights since blacks were denied the right to vote, the right to testify against white men, and had to pay property taxes, even though their children could not attend public schools.
He was on the executive committee for the first annual meeting of the National Equal Rights League, of which John M. Langston was president and Frederick Douglass was vice president.
But why did he move to Wellington?
R.J. had been living in southern Illinois, about 12 miles from Missouri, which was a slave state. “Perhaps it was not a safe space to be as time went on,” Wainio told the story.
The Rev. R.J. Robinson passed in 1890 and his obituary said, “In this village of broad-minded eastern people, which had settled it, this family found a generous welcome, the younger children attended the public schools, and the family at once identified itself with the best interests of the community.”
There are more questions than answers, Waino said. And that’s why her search continues at 138 Forest St. and beyond.
“It’s research that needed to be done,” she said. “Somebody needed to do it and nobody was stepping up to do it. It’s my job.”
Catherine Gabe can be reached at 440-647-3171 or @ReporterGabe on Twitter.
Photos by Catherine Gabe | Wellington Enterprise
Marilyn Wainio shares R. J. Robinson’s story whenever she can. Here she presents to the Wellington Genealogical Group on Feb. 1.