In October, in our series on “Deserving Candidates for a Historical Marker,” we wrote about Harriet Jacobs and Julia Wilbur, two abolitionists who crossed paths in Alexandria during the Civil War. In 1862, freed enslaved humans called “contraband” were pouring into the Federal City, as well as Union-occupied Alexandria. The influx of refugees created a humanitarian crisis.
For the next three years, Jacobs and Wilbur worked together to help clothe, shelter and educate the refugees, as well as bring national attention to their plight.
More is known about Jacobs than Wilbur. Friends of Alexandria Archaeology board member and research historian Paula Whitacre lessened that distance yesterday morning at the Alexandria Archaeology Museum. Her lecture was titled “Through the Eyes (and Pen) of Julia Wilbur.” After braving the bitterly cold temps, a standing room only crowd packed the third floor room at the Torpedo Factory to see this latest installment of the museum’s “Java Jolt” series.
Whitacre has transcribed and annotated some of Wilbur’s diaries and studied her writings and correspondence. Researchers will be pleased to know her work will available on the web in the coming months.
Poised and confident, Whitacre discussed Wilbur’s role as a relief worker and observer of history, her views of race, and the prejudice against women who fought past traditional roles in society. Over a dozen photos enhanced the presentation, many showing diary entries.
Contemplating her role, she decided to head south. Wilbur arrived in the nation’s capital in the summer 1862 and was told help was needed in Alexandria.
Whitacre pointed out the challenges Wilbur faced in working with the Alexandria Military Governor John Slough and Reverend Albert Gladwin, Superintendent of Contrabands in the city. Instead of appreciating the work she was doing under extremely difficult conditions, they complained to their superiors about what they perceived as interference and disrespect to their rank.
Wilbur was in Alexandria when President Lincoln was assassinated. She attended the funeral procession on Pennsylvania Avenue and wrote about it in her diary. In her daily writings, Wilbur was frank at times, a valuable commodity for historians who sometimes are frustrated by those who are reluctant to reveal their true feelings and beliefs.
After the end of the war, Wilbur moved to Washington and stayed there for the rest of her life. 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. She continues, however, to touch hearts and minds, as did this presentation.