“Ain’t none of us getting out of here alive,” said Henry Lee, standing Friday in front of his own gravestone at Westwood Cemetery.
Lee died more than a century ago, but his story was resurrected through re-enactor Joseph Peek for an Oberlin Heritage Center guided tour of interesting and influential historical characters.
Described as cantankerous and regarded as a controversial character, Lee was dedicated to the struggle for equal rights, said Peek.
He was born in 1836 as a slave in Virginia. “You don’t even know you’re poor and disadvantaged because so is everyone around you — except for the white folks, that is. But that’s to be expected south of the Mason-Dixon Line,” he said in character.
By the 1850s, Lee started to understand that the United States weren’t so united anymore. That’s when he ran in the dead of night, hopping a North-bound train.
He wound up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, then in Syracuse, New York, where he met a student from Oberlin College — then called The Oberlin Institute — who described a social paradise in Ohio. Lee moved to Oberlin in 1859.
Over the years, he ran many businesses, including a taxi company, delivery service, and ice skating park. He also got into his fair number of scrapes because of the color of his skin.
On the walk through the cemetery, visitors also met Helen Gorske Sperry, as portrayed by her niece, Pat Gorske Price.
Born in 1909, Sperry was the daughter of Polish immigrants. “My parents told me I could be anything I wanted to be because I was born in America,” she said. “And that’s exactly what I set out to do.”
When she was old enough, Sperry enrolled at Oberlin Business School and in time bought the family insurance business in town.
She “remembered” chatting with Oberlin businessmen. Sperry was the only woman at that table and she was proud to have their respect.
Price told stories about customers, employees, and adding machines through her aunt’s eyes. She also described how smoking killed several close family members, and how emphysema ended Sperry’s life at age 68.
Camille Hamlin Allen spoke as Oberlin hat shop owner Marie de France.
“Ladies and gentlemen, where are your hats?” she asked. “Do you not realize no one can have respect without a hat upon their head?”
The re-enactor said hats were about more than fashion — they protected, flattered, and without a doubt signaled your social station during de France’s time around the turn of the 20th century.
Only the low, the wretchedly poor, and the obscene would be seen out and about with their heads uncovered, she said.
Respect was paramount for de France. African-American women had to fight for acceptance at every turn, even in liberal Oberlin.
Marx Straus, portrayed by Dennis Cook, was born in Germany in 1830 and immigrated to the United States at 18. He made his bones as a traveling peddler before settling in Oberlin and opening a dry goods shop.
Straus became known for his high-quality merchandise and his fortune grew.
“I was one of the wealthiest men in Lorain County,” Cook said, wearing a top hat.
Straus was known to be the first man in Oberlin to smoke a cigar in public, breaking the town’s puritanical taboo against tobacco use.
In 1895, Straus gave his hotel to Oberlin College. It was torn down in 1940 and the Oberlin Inn was built.
In 1909, he became one of the first people to buy an automobile. Straus died three years later, worth an estimated $13 million in today’s currency.
Judy Cook played Rachel Brightman Rawdon, an Ohio native born in 1882 who moved to Oberlin at age 12.
Rawdon studied physical education at Oberlin College and went on to teach algebra and Latin at the high school. Later, she opened tea houses in Vermilion and Oberlin, becoming famous for her maple nut rolls.
She died in 1960 at age 78 in Florida.
The tour, called “Every Good Story Has a Plot,” was popular, running three times over the weekend.