- Paula Whitacre
Julia Wilbur: From a Monroe County Farm to a Fight for Equal Rights
Updated: Mar 24, 2021
The currents of social reform that circulated in upstate New York in the mid-1800s produced many well-known leaders in abolitionism and women’s rights. The mood of the times also influenced lesser-known people who acted on their beliefs in ways that still seem outside-the-box more than 150 years later.
credits to Quaker & Special Collections, Haverford College
Upstate New York Roots
Among them was Julia Wilbur (1815-1895), a Quaker whose family farmed in Rush, about 20 miles west of Farmington. (There is no record of her visiting the Farmington Meeting House but her uncle and aunt, Esak and Maria Wilbur, belonged.) As the only unmarried daughter among 10 sisters and brothers, she was often expected to care for relatives, including her siblings after their mother died in 1835 and, in the late 1850s, a young niece. She might have continued this quiet existence but fate—and events of the time—stepped in.
credits to Still Records Picture Division, National Archives
In the 1840s and 1850s, while teaching in Rochester, Wilbur became involved in two anti-slavery groups, the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society and the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, or RLASS. She attended lectures and meetings, served as an RLASS “directress,” and helped raise funds for Frederick Douglass’s North Star newspaper and other anti-slavery causes.
Fortunately for us, Wilbur kept diaries almost daily beginning in 1844. More fortunately, her descendants preserved and donated them to Haverford College in Pennsylvania, where her great-great nephew Douglas Steere taught. (As an aside, Steere was a noted Quaker author who helped in post-World War II European relief efforts and co-founded the Pendle Hill Retreat Center.) In her diaries, Wilbur wrote about the ups and downs of teaching, settling in to boarding houses among strangers, and traveling. Sometimes, she was quite pensive, as in this entry on September 26, 1847, that seems like she could have written it today:
It is not pleasant to be singular in our opinions but I mean to be true to my convictions of duty, hoping that the world will get righted up some time or other…. Sometimes I wonder that people are no better & then I wonder that they are as good as they are.
Wilbur did not attend the Seneca Falls Convention and was not active in women’s rights groups before the Civil War. She did, however, recognize that what she called her “single blessedness” gave her more independence than her married female contemporaries. She spoke her mind, rather than remain in the so-called “women’s sphere.” And it frosted her that female teachers earned less than male teachers.
In 1853, she attended a New York State Teachers Association convention. For three days, Wilbur wrote in her diary on August 5, “hitherto, no woman had presumed to speak.” Finally, she continued, “Miss S.B. Anthony of this city rose & asked if it would be too out of order to speak.” Anthony debunked the myth that female teachers did not need their wages to survive.
Four years later, at the association’s convention in Binghamton, Wilbur herself got up to speak. She offered two resolutions about wage equality. As she wrote in her diary:
The spirit moved me & it was my first speaking in public. A spicy time.
Civil War and Beyond
In 1862, the RLASS decided to sponsor a relief agent to help formerly enslaved people, known then as freedmen or “contrabands” (as “contraband property” of Southern slave-holders). They asked Wilbur to take on the position, which would entail providing clothing, access to education, a sympathetic shoulder, or whatever was needed. She agreed, armed only with letters of introduction with which to connect with a freedmen’s relief association in Washington. The group’s leaders suggested she work across the Potomac in Alexandria, Virginia.
Wilbur remained in Alexandria from 1862 to 1865. Her diary and letters to RLASS officers reveal a harsh environment, but also a growing confidence in her contributions and abilities. She partnered with Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, whom the New York Society of Friends had sent to Alexandria in a similar capacity. That these two women, one White and one Black, spoke up to the military officers in charge of Alexandria was itself revolutionary.
In 1865, Wilbur moved into Washington, where she lived for the rest of her life (with frequent visits to the Rochester area, especially in the summer). She worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau and then the U.S. Patent Office in the first generation of female government employees. She became active in suffrage and built a life as an independent and self-supporting woman.
For more information:
Julia Wilbur’s diaries
Julia Wilbur’s Civil War letters to the RLASS and the organization’s annual reports
A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur’s Struggle for Purpose by Paula Tarnapol Whitacre (Potomac Books, 2017)
Thanks go to Farmington board member Charles Lenhart, a descendant of the Wilbur family, for his assistance during the many years it took the author to transcribe and understand Julia Wilbur’s diaries. Esak and Maria Wilbur (above) were Charles’ great-great grandparents. Julia Wilbur was the daughter of Esak’s brother Stephen.