Harriet Jacobs and Julia Wilbur: Two Other "Heroines"

I attended a lecture last week by Pamela Toller, who wrote the companion book to "Mercy Street," Heroines of Mercy Street. The book is about Mary Phinney but extends to other Civil War nurses. (Full disclosure: The book is not available until mid-February, so this very abbreviated summary is based on what the author said it was about and a quick leaf-through, not a read of the book itself.) With my own research in mind, I can't resist proposing Julia Wilbur and Harriet Jacobs as two other real-life heroines of Mercy Street, in its figurative sense. Julia, the subject of my book, and Harriet, who also features in it, came to Alexandria as relief agents to help people escaping slavery behind Union lines--people like Aurelia in the PBS series.

This past Saturday, I gave a talk about the two women at the Alexandria Black History Museum. I will give the talk again on March 22 at the Barrett Library on Queen Street, also in Old Town Alexandria.

The two women came on their own to Alexandria--Julia in November 1862, sponsored by the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society, and Harriet in January 1863, sponsored by the New York Society of Friends. They came to "help contrabands"--what that meant, with whom, and how was up for grabs. In that respect, they had more latitude than the nurses, who had a place in the hospital hierarchy, but also a less-sympathetic mission in the eyes of many.

For my talk, I organized what they tried to achieve in three areas: basic needs, education, and rights and dignity:

  • Basic needs included advocating for better housing for freedpeople (including the barracks pictured below, built on Prince Street) and distributing clothing & bedding. As today, some people argued that refugees should not receive anything for free, for fear they would become too "dependent" on government hand-outs. They also successfully fought a proposal to move healthy orphans into a smallpox hospital.
  • Education included supporting schools for black children and adults--an illegal act in the South. A woman named Mary Chase opened the first school in September 1861. Harriet and her daughter Louisa ran the Jacobs School. Unlike most of the white-led missionary/abolition schools being set up, Harriet felt strongly that the school should be black-led and run.
  • Last but not least, they fought for dignity for themselves (two civilian women, one black, one white, in the white male power structure) and for the people they served.

Harriet Jacobs wrote about her early years, including her escape from slavery, in the book Incidents of a Slave Girl. A century or so later, historian Jean Fagan Yellin proved that she was the author and it was autobiographical (lost facts through the decades). Yellin also compiled papers related to Jacobs and wrote her biography.