|My Trip Back in Time|
"I seem to myself to be at times comparatively useless."
Haven't we all had a thought like this on occasion?
Almost 175 years ago, in 1844, Julia Wilbur, from Rochester, New York, expressed that particular insecurity at the age of 26. But she forged ahead as a teacher, abolitionist, and suffragette until her death in the 1890s.
In 1862, she traveled on her own to Washington and Alexandria, then Union-occupied, with a heartfelt but ill-defined "job description" to assist formerly enslaved blacks (known as contrabands at the time) who were leaving the South. She spent most of the war in Alexandria, funded by the Rochester Ladies Anti Slavery Society.
As I have reported here before, I have been involved in a great project for Alexandria Archeology--transcribing, annotating, and summarizing Wilbur's diaries, with a focus on her time in Alexandria.
After using microfilm since January, I decided it was time to make a trip to the Magill Library at Haverford College to see the originals. For two days, I ensconced myself in the Special Collections room, blessedly quiet before the school term began, with the four boxes of her papers. It was, of course, not nearly enough time.
Douglas Steere, a now-deceased Haverford professor, gave the diaries to the college in the 1980s/early 1990s. He was Julia Wilbur's great-great nephew, and his grandmother and great-grandmother are often mentioned. Sitting in the library, with a letter explaining the connection and the diaries in front of me, the past felt very close.
Each box contains hundreds of journal pages, both bound and unbound.
Wilbur may well have known she was leaving a record for posterity. She kept longer (see above) and shorter (see below) versions that cover the same dates. (In fact, one of my biggest discoveries was the red-tied diaries because they are not on microfilm--both good news and bad news!) She had even begun a sort of "greatest hits" retrospective. So we are dealing with two and sometimes three records for the same years.
The small ones are small indeed:
Although I greatly admire Julia Wilbur, I do not want to leave the impression that she was perfect. Based on her writings:
- Although amazingly open-minded for her day, she could be patronizing in her language and attitudes.
- She could be self-pitying.
- She could be self-righteous.
In short, a very real person speaks to us across a century.
Excuse this break from the usual topics of this newsletter, but summer is all about interesting pursuits. This project has led to learning more about, among other topics, living and working conditions for African American soldiers and civilians before and after the Civil War, everyday life for a single woman in the 19th century, and how to use archives for primary-source research.