It was both difficult and easy to imagine the building at the corner of South Washington and Wolfe streets in Alexandria, Va., as it was during the Civil War. Difficult because it now houses a pet supply store and an antiques shop. Easy because I was with Paula Tarnapol Whitacre.
“We think that the clothing room would have been set up in the front, on the southern side,” Paula said on a recent afternoon as we stood outside 323 S. Washington St.
Paula showed me a photo taken around 1865. Dozens of people — and a horse — stand outside the three-story building. They are young and old, black and white, male and female. On the top step is the subject of Paula’s new book, “A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur’s Struggle for Purpose.”
“In a way, the Civil War helped her as much as she helped people during the war,” Paula said. “It did give her this mission that really changed her life, as it did for many people.”
Julia Wilbur was what today we would probably call a social worker. Born into a large Quaker farming family in Upstate New York, she seemed restless as an adult. She was a schoolteacher for more than a decade, though it irritated her that female teachers were paid half as much as their male counterparts. She was a seamstress, too, but that didn’t provide much satisfaction.
Finally, in October 1862, Julia finagled funding from the Rochester [N.Y.] Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society to travel south and help former slaves displaced by the Civil War. She wound up in Alexandria, an unmarried 47-year-old white women with no specific job, other than to somehow ease the suffering of the city’s “contrabands,” escaped slaves who had traveled north to freedom.
Julia arrived in an occupied city, a refugee city, an “old dirty” city, in her words. Many wealthy secessionists — “secesh,” in the jargon of the time — had fled Alexandria. Often, the fine homes they left behind were confiscated and put to use by the Union.
Federal troops moved in and out of Alexandria. Contrabands sought sanctuary. Northern tourists came to see such sites as the shuttered slave market.
Julia often worked in tandem with Harriet Jacobs, a former slave. From the building at Washington and Wolfe streets, they distributed donated clothing to destitute African Americans.
Every day, Julia would walk through Alexandria, visiting hospitals and boardinghouses, cajoling officials. She was probably seen as a nuisance by some, but there’s no denying she was effective. When officials seriously — and ill-advisedly — considered housing black orphans in a smallpox hospital, Julia was among those who protested, quashing the notion.
We know so much about Julia because she kept a detailed diary. While scholars have known about it — and Julia is mentioned in many books about the era — no one had done a full-length biography.
Paula, a freelance writer and editor who lives in Alexandria, thought it was time. She transcribed Julia’s pocket diary, on microfilm at the Barrett Branch Library on Queen Street. Another part of the diary — a whopping 1,400 pages — sat in the collection of Haverford College.
“I realized if I transcribed those, I would still be doing that today,” Paula said.
The Friends of Alexandria Archaeology split the cost to scan them with Haverford. The scans were put online, and the call went out for volunteers to transcribe them. About 25 volunteers came forward, taking portions and doing the work in a year.
Reading Julia’s words, Paula said, “You really kind of got the sense that there are big events and there are small events that make up the life of a person.”
Julia witnessed many of these events.
The city is a character in the biography, and during our tour of Alexandria, Paula pointed out some of what remains: the contraband and freedmen’s cemetery rediscovered not 20 years ago near the Beltway; the building on Duke Street that housed slave dealers Price, Birch & Co.; the private home that was once the office of surgeons who worked at L’Ouverture Hospital, a facility for U.S. Colored Troops on Prince Street.
“It really gives you the sense that it was not all that long ago,” Paula said.
I decided what I liked most about Julia Wilbur was the resolve she mustered at a time in her life when she would have been forgiven for coasting.
One day in 1862, agonizing over exactly what her future might hold and desperate for a change, Julia confided to her diary: “I begin to think it will not do to wait some for anything to turn up, but I must turn up something myself.”
So she did.
Paula will be speaking about Julia Wilbur on Oct. 12 at the Beatley Library in Alexandria as part of George Mason University’s Fall for the Book and on Oct. 21 at the Virginia Room of the Fairfax Library. For information, visit paulawhitacre.com.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.