“Slavery has poisoned every thing, from the top to the bottom of society, its evils are felt from center to circumference.” – Julia Wilbur, letter, Alexandria Va. Nov. 12th, 1862 [From the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society Papers, 1851-1868, William L. Clements Library, the University of Michigan]. Published by Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery.
In our efforts to determine deserving candidates for an historical marker in Alexandria, we have looked at about a dozen so far, including Benjamin Hallowell, the Dulany House, the Ramsay family, Hugh West and his family, and four places associated with “The Bottoms” neighborhood.
Today we will look at two remarkable women and the crossing of their paths in Alexandria during the Civil War.
Note: Harriet Jacobs’s name is listed on one of the Bronze Trees in the Alexandria African-American Heritage Park. Julia Wilbur is mentioned briefly in the L’Ouverture marker on S. Payne Street. City memos indicate new interpretive markers at the Contraband Cemetery Park will include quotes from Jacobs and Wilbur.
Harriet Jacobs was born in 1813 in Edenton, a small town in North Carolina, but one steeped in history. Notable Edentonians include Joseph Hewes, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Samuel Johnston, a Senator and member of the Continental Congress.
The freedoms those two fought for did not include any for Jacobs. Born into slavery, she endured hardships that included sexual harassment by her “master.” After hiding in her grandmother’s attic, she escaped and fled to Philadelphia in 1842.
In 1861, Jacobs penned “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Kirkus Reviews says, “this may be the most important story ever written by a slave woman.”
A year after the publication of her book, Jacobs traveled to Washington. Such a return southward took courage, for Jacobs risked being captured and put back into slavery.
In a treasured resource, “The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers,” Jean Fagan Yellin, who also wrote “Harriet Jacobs, A Life,” note that the Civil War “energized Jacobs.” Freed refugee slaves called “contraband” were pouring into the Federal City, as well as Union-occupied Alexandria. Jacobs described the destitute conditions, “where the poor creatures seemed so far removed from the immediate sympathies of those who would help them.”
The influx of refugees created a humanitarian crisis. In addition to their plight as homeless and hungry, disease was their worst enemy. In one of her letters, Jacobs wrote:
“The smallpox raged fearfully – death met you at every turn. From the 20th of October to the 4th of March, 800 refugees were buried in the town by the government.”
Jacobs worked tirelessly to help clothe and shelter the refugees. She also established what would be called the “Jacobs Free School,” located at North Pitt and Oronoco streets, a shantytown section called “Petersburg.” The school opened in January 1864.
In August of that year, Jacobs gave an inspiring speech at L’Ouverture Hospital, which was located between Duke and Prince, and S. Payne and S. West. The occasion for the ceremony was Alexandria’s first commemoration of British West Indies Emancipation, which had taken place 31 years prior.
Julia Wilbur (1815-1895) was born in upstate New York in 1815. Her Quaker upbringing shined a light on the need to help enslaved humans. Trips to Rochester, a beacon city for civil rights crusaders, exposed her to the writings of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. In 1845, she met Harriet Jacobs in a reading room ran by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society.
In 1862, Wilbur left New York for Alexandria. Part of her funding, small as it was, came from the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. For four long years, Jacobs and Wilbur worked together to improve conditions for the refugees. They procured food, clothing and supplies, helped to organize schools and set up orphanages. Jacobs and Wilbur spoke for the contraband in ways no one else could.
One estimate numbered the refugees at 7,000. Some found jobs as laborers, cooks and personal servants. Shanties sprung up on the fringes of the seaport city, and were given names such as “Contraband Valley” and “Pump Town.”
The footprints of Jacobs and Wilbur are many in Alexandria. The Jacobs School and all but one small part of the L’Ouverture Hospital are long gone, but we are left with the Freedom House Museum on Duke Street (former slave pen), the Freedman and Contraband Cemetery (park is scheduled to open next spring), and a twin three-story house on South Washington Street.
All of the above except one have at least one marker to tell part of their story. The house at the corner of S. Washington and Wolfe does not. Even looking at the three-story Federal-style dwelling today, one has few clues that it played an important part in helping the refugees. Many buildings and homes served as a makeshift hospital during the war, but the stories behind this one are rarely told.
Thanks to Tim Dennee and the Friends of Freedman’s Cemetery, we now know something about this contraband hospital. In 2011, they published an in depth look (“A House Divided Still Stands: The Contraband Hospital and Alexandria Freedmen’s Aid Workers” by Tim Dennee and the Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery).
Their research started when Amy Bertsch, then with the Office of Historic Alexandria, spotted a photo of it on the web. The building, used by small businesses in the recent past, also graces the cover of “Images of America – Alexandria.” (George Combs, Leslie Anderson, and Julia Downie). Posing in front is a group of individuals that include Jacobs and Wilbur.
With a pressing need for a hospital for the contraband, General Slough signed orders in early 1863 that confiscated the new home of Robert Miller at the corner of Washington and Wolfe Street. Miller was highly respected in Alexandria and a merchant. The north side of his property became the hospital and the south side was used as living quarters by Wilbur. Inadequate in its size, Slough ordered the building of another hospital at Prince and Payne streets. The Washington street hospital was used until war’s end, partly as a dispensary.
The Miller family re-gained their twin houses but were denied compensation to restore the dwelling. Miller, a respected merchant, sold the house in 1865 to Edward S. Hough. A photograph taken in 1960 shows the twin doors but some time afterward, they were altered to the current one door entrance.
Jacobs and Wilbur were deeply saddened by the news that President Lincoln had been shot and killed by an assassin’s bullet, but they left Alexandria knowing their labor bore fruits.
After the war, Jacobs traveled to Savannah, returned to her native Edenton, and then spent time in New York and Cambridge, Massachusetts. She then moved to Washington in 1877. Yellin notes the city was “the center of the black aristocracy, and where “negroes had made greater strides than anywhere else.”
Jacobs opened up a boarding house that catered to both blacks and whites. She was also pleased to be reunited with Wilbur.
To the end Jacobs was helping others, despite the onset of age and illness. In 1897, she passed away in Washington, and was buried in Cambridge.
After the end of the war, Wilbur moved to the federal city and stayed there for the rest of her life. She worked some with Jacobs and also with suffragists and women’s rights advocates. When the Patent Office hired her as a clerk, she became their first female employee. Wilbur died in 1895 in Washington and was buried in her home state.
Jacobs and Wilbur lived a full life of giving, and touched many hearts in Alexandria. An historical marker would be our way of remembering their kindness, caring and heroic actions. Perhaps one will be erected at the South Washington dwelling where they lived and worked together. Mention of the Miller family’s eviction should also be included. Although not as much as others, they suffered too.
“The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers,” Jean Fagan Yellin
“Harriet Jacobs, A Life,” Jean Fagan Yellin
“A House Divided Still Stands: The Contraband Hospital and Alexandria Freedmen’s Aid Workers” by Tim Dennee and the Friends of Freedmen’s Cemetery
Letters from Julia Wilbur, Nov. 5, 1862, through Feb. 8, 1865. From the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society Papers, 1861-1868, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan. Transcribed by Paula Whitacre, published at Alexandria Archaeology.
African-American Civilians and Soldiers Treated at Claremont Smallpox Hospital, Fairfax County, Virginia, 1862-1865
Duke Street House
Wilbur initially lived at a boarding house on the corner of Duke and Columbus. It’s uncertain to me which corner that is. A map that Wally Pippenger and John Huennekens came up (published in the Jacobs letters book that Yellin edited) shows it on the northwest corner. A Greek-Revival house stands at 801 Duke Street, which is on the northwest corner.
The Pippenger-Huennekens map shows the Jacobs school as being on the northwest corner.
A photograph, however, from the Robert Langmuir Collection of African-American Photographs collection (published in Yellin’s biography of Jacobs and used as the cover), leads me to believe it was on the northeast corner.