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By Paula Tarnapol Whitacre
Between the U.S. Civil War’s battlefields and home front lay a middle place — the territory occupied by the northern, or Union, army that provided haven to escaped slaves. Julia Wilbur smoothed their transition to freedom.
No one would have predicted that Julia Ann Wilbur would emerge as a hero to thousands. She began life near Poughkeepsie, New York, the third of 10 children born into a Quaker family in 1815. After her father suffered a blinding eye affliction and her mother died, Julia became the primary caregiver for her father and younger siblings. She was then 19, the age when most young women of her era were preparing for marriage. Being thrust into the role of surrogate mother and head of family changed the direction of Julia’s life forever.
In 1844, now 29, Julia was no longer needed at home. So she relocated to Rochester, New York to pursue a career as a schoolteacher. She earned her own money and lived independently – and she liked it. She would eventually speak out against wage disparity between male and female teachers.
Rochester was a hub for social reformists and abolitionists, home to such mavericks as Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Julia found herself drawn to their circle. She became particularly active in the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society (RLASS) – a connection that would serve her in the coming civil war between the US’s southern and northern states.
But first, another tragedy took Julia back to her family’s farm. One of her sisters died unexpectedly, leaving 2-year-old Freda behind. The Wilbur family, along with Freda’s father, decided Julia would raise her niece, an idea that Julia embraced wholeheartedly. When Freda’s father changed his mind and reclaimed his daughter about two years later, Julia was devastated.
She may have remained alone, depressed, and aimless at that time, but for the war...
Drawing on the rules of conflict at that time, President Abraham Lincoln decreed that all enslaved people successfully crossing into Union-occupied territory would remain free – not returned as “property” to those on the war’s southern, or Confederate, side. Nationwide, about half-million men, women, and children made the bold move to flee to freedom. And they needed help.
Officially, the Union Army was responsible for supporting them, but with all available resources mobilized to serve the cause, it provided minimal, if any, assistance to the newly freedpeople. So groups like the RLASS stepped in to help provide “relief” to the formerly enslaved.
When the RLASS leadership asked Julia, in 1862, to join the relief effort on behalf of their organization, she embarked once again on a new path, finding a new life’s purpose. That fall, Julia Wilbur moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where several thousand freedpeople were already encamped. She got straight to work.
Julia provided material support for those in need, soliciting clothing from those who had it to distribute to those who did not. She became an advocate for the recognition of human rights and dignity, agitating for better housing for the freedpeople and pushing for payment of past wages due – for many, the first paid work in their lives. She provided comfort to those languishing from disease and injury in Alexandria’s hastily created hospitals.
Julia described her role as “missionary at large, woman of all work.”
Julia gained a partner and lifelong friend at this time: Harriet Jacobs. Harriet had escaped enslavement in the 1840s. She wrote about her experience in Incidents in the Life of a Slavegirl. A New York Quaker group supported Harriet’s desire to aid the freedpeople. She, too, traveled to Alexandria; her mission was much the same as Julia’s: to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Little wonder the two found each other.
Together, Julia and Harriet were a force of nature. They pushed back against a plan to warehouse healthy black orphans in a smallpox hospital, instead fighting to ensure that the children were rehomed safely and under proper care. They protested the humiliating punishment freedwomen experienced at the hands of Union soldiers, the very people ostensibly in charge of their well being, who publicly stripped and doused black women with cold water for even minor offenses.
After the war, Julia moved across the Potomac River to Washington D.C to do similar work for the newly formed federal Freedmen’s Bureau. By the late 1860s, however, the war over and President Lincoln dead, money and compassion for the formerly enslaved dried up. To maintain an independent life in Washington, Julia took a job in the US Patent Office, one of the first generation of female government employees. She became active in the movement for women's suffrage, leading an 1869 attempt to register female voters in local D.C. elections.
Fortunately for us, and for history, Julia Wilbur kept a diary throughout much of her life, writing until shortly before her death in 1895. Through it, we get a glimpse into the accomplishments of a little known but extremely effective agent of change.
Though not a household name, Julia Wilbur's story exemplifies how “ordinary” people, at any age and at any time, can effect extraordinary change when they witness injustice and make the decision to fight to change it. That’s why she’s a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Paula Whitacre for nominating her and for crafting this wonderful guest post for the #HistoryHero BLAST.
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Paula Tarnapol Whitacre is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher in Alexandria, Virginia, though originally from Connecticut. She learned about Julia Wilbur while researching Union hospitals in Civil War Alexandria and Washington. Her biography of Wilbur, A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur’s Struggle for Purpose, was published by Potomac Books in 2017. She is on the boards of Friends of Alexandria Archaeology and the Civil War Roundtable of Washington. For more information, visit www.paulawhitacre.com.
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