Julia Wilbur, photo taken in Rochester, NY, original at Haverford College.

Julia Wilbur, photo taken in Rochester, NY, original at Haverford College.


JULIA ANN WILBUR (1815-1895)

Julia Wilbur was born near Poughkeepsie, New York, to a Quaker couple, the 3rd child of 10 (7 girls and 3 boys). In the mid-1820s, her father came down with an eye disease that almost blinded him. He left what Julia later described as a "mercantile and milling business" and purchased farmland near his brother in the town of Rush, about 15 miles south of Rochester.

In 1835, Mary Latham Wilbur died about 6 weeks after giving birth. Although her father remarried, Julia helped raise her siblings until 1844, when she moved to Rochester to teach.

Rochester was a city in the midst of the reform movements of temperance, women's rights, and, closest to her heart, abolitionism. Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, among many other of Julia's friends, lived and worked there. She attended meetings and lectures in the evenings after a day of teaching and was an early member of the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society (RLASS).

In 1858, her sister Sarah died in childbirth, leaving a toddler named Freda. It was decided that the Wilburs would raise the girl, and Freda quickly became the daughter that Julia never had. But trouble brewed when Sarah's husband—with the "you can't make this up" name of Revilo—reclaimed his daughter. Julia was bereft.

She remained sad and paralyzed for 2 years, trying unsuccessfully to re-establish contact with Freda. Once a keen follower of current events, she initially lost interest in all that surrounded her. Gradually, however, she rebounded.

In August 1862, Anna Barnes, the RLASS secretary, asked if Julia would go to Washington and work as a teacher or relief worker on their behalf. She was ready for a change and went south on October 22, 1862. In Washington, she connected with a freedmen's relief group who urged her to work in Alexandria, across the Potomac.

She lived and worked in Alexandria from November 1862 through February 1865. She then moved to Washington, where she continued her relief work. After the war, she worked for the Freedmen's Bureau as a visiting agent until 1869.

As the Bureau's funds and support unfortunately wound down, she talked her way into a job at the Patent Office as a clerk. For the next several decades, she made a life for herself in Washington, keeping her job until shortly before her death in 1895, almost 80 years old.