The Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society papers contain only a small portion of what must at one time have been a much larger collection. As a society devoted to the immediate abolition of slavery, the antislavery movement forms the context of most of the correspondence in the collection, but the members of the society were individually and collectively involved in the education of freedmen and in other movements, including women's rights. As a result, the collection offers a broad perspective on the mentality and activity of a small group of progressive northern women involved in the reform of what they saw as the worst inequities in American society.
The Society maintained contact with several national-level leaders of the antislavery movements, and provided important financial support to Frederick Douglass, in particular. The nine letters from Douglass in the collection all relate to the assistance provided for publication of his newspaper or are requests from him for direct aid to fugitive slaves en route to Canada. A particularly affecting letter is one that he wrote from England in 1860, while on an antislavery tour. Harriet Tubman, Beriah Green, Lewis Tappan, George B. Cheever, and Gerrit Smith also appear in the collection, either as correspondents or subjects of letters. Among the more interesting of these letters is one from John Stewart, probably a free black man, addressed to Harriet Tubman; a letter from Moses Anderson, also African-American, writing about the importance of Uncle Tom's Cabin in shaping his political consciousness; Jacob Gibb's letter of introduction for a fugitive slave; and William Watkins' report on the number of fugitive slaves that have passed through Rochester into Canada in the year 1857.
British support for the Society was crucial in keeping it viable in the late 1850s, and is documented through the letters of Julia Griffiths Crofts (Leeds, England); Sarah Plummer (Dalkeith, Scotland), and Maria Webb (Dublin, Ireland). The fund-raising efforts of the society can be tracked partly through the list of goods donated for a Festival (1:77), a small collection of ephemera relating to British antislavery societies (1:82), and a list of donations from those British societies (1:28). The most significant item for tracking finances, however, is the account book for the Society (2:20), which covers its entire history. The secretaries of the Society recorded the complete finances of the organization, and provided lists of speakers at their annual events, and carefully delineated money remitted to individual fugitive slaves. Included at the end of the collection are a set of photocopies of the manuscripts (2:21) and supplemental information about the Society and its members, provided by the University of Rochester (2:22).
Freedmen's education was a major concern of the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society, and is discussed extensively by several correspondents. The single most frequent correspondent in the collection is Julia A. Wilbur, writing while working with freedmen in Alexandria, Va., 1862-1865. Wilbur writes long and vivid letters describing the miserable living conditions found among the freedmen, their want of clothing and shelter, and she describes several individual cases. Wilbur also met and became familiar with the renowned ex-slave and author, Harriet Jacobs. The situation that Wilbur describes in Virginia verges on the chaotic, with corruption at the highest levels, dissension among those in charge of contraband matters, and many in the military reluctant or unwilling to take any responsibility. She was a perceptive observer of the progress of the war, Southern citizenry, and of the destruction that the war had inflicted upon Virginia. Her official reports to the Society, which are more general and less pointed than her private correspondence, were published in the Society's published annual reports (2:1-13).
In addition to Wilbur's letters, there are six other items pertaining to freedmen's education. Three letters from G. W. Gardiner and one document signed by Lewis Overton, 1862-63, relate to the work of the Colored School, founded for freedmen at Leavenworth, Kansas, and both letters from Daniel Breed, 1863-64, include discussions of the Rochester School for Freedmen in Washington, D.C., named for the Society whose money founded it.
The printed items in the collection include fourteen of the seventeen known annual reports of the Society, a report from the Toronto Ladies' Association for the Relief of Destitute Colored fugitives (2:14), and circulars from two British societies (2:15-16). Three issues of Frederick Douglass' Paper (October 2, 1851, February 19 1858, and July 1, 1859) and one issue of The North Star (April 14, 1848) are included in Oversize Manuscripts. An issue of the Christian Inquirer (New York, July 24, 1858), having no direct relation to the Rochester Society, was transferred to the Newspapers Division. Finally, in two letters written in 1859 and 1861, Rebecca Bailey discusses her father William Bailey's newspaper, The Free South.