Although not as well known as many of her female contemporaries, Julia A. Wilbur was an active anti-slavery and women’s rights proponent during the 19th century. The daughter of Mary Lapham and Stephen Wilbur, Julia was born into a Quaker family on August 8, 1815, near Rochester, New York.
In 1844, Julia began teaching in the Rochester public school system. She notes several times in her journals her frustration at the wage gap between male and female teachers—an injustice that likely helped fuel her later engagement with women’s rights efforts. One notable event is Julia’s early life was her initial interaction with Harriet Jacobs in April of 1849. Jacobs, herself a freed slave, would eventually befriend Julia during their work with freed and escaped slaves in Alexandria, Virginia. It is also important to recognize Julia’s early involvement with the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, for which she served as a correspondence secretary.
Julia’s life changed markedly in April of 1858, when her sister, Sarah, died. As a result of this tragedy, Julia became the guardian of Freda, Sarah’s daughter. Julia seems to have taken well to her new, motherly role. Yet, things took a turn for the worse in January of 1860, when Freda’s father, who had recently remarried, decided to claim custody of Freda. Having her niece so abruptly pulled from her life was devastating for Julia; she was launched into a severe depression that continued for about two years. Fortunately, Julia’s unhappiness did ultimately lift. This emotional shift was triggered in large part by her move to Alexandria, Virginia in October of 1862. Sent to Virginia by the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, Wilbur worked there alongside Harriet Jacobs providing supplies and education to freed slaves. This work was emotionally and physically taxing for Julia and exposed her to the sufferings of others in a very personal way.
In 1865, Julia made yet another shift by moving to Washington, DC. She became increasingly involved with the women’s rights movement and also took a job working in the U.S. Patent Office. According to a letter written by Julia’s great-niece, Julia was the first woman admitted to work in this office. Julia spent her last years living in Washington D.C. with her sister, Frances, until her death in 1895.
Baron, Erika. “Bridging Separate Spheres: the Life of Julia Wilbur.” Haverford College, 1989. Print.
[Haverford College senior thesis]
Cox, Rob. “Finding Aid for Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, 1851-1868.” William L. Clements Library Manuscript Division Finding Aids. University of Michigan Digital Library, 1995.
Roedner, Lauren. “First Step Toward Freedom: Women in Contraband Camps In and Around the District of Columbia During the Civil War.” NCUR Proceedings 2012, printed online.