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September 19, 2012

Archive provides window on abolition, women’s rights movements

archived manuscripts and photos
he Post family archive (1817 to 1918) contains more than 2,000 letters, books, newspapers, and other material related to abolition, women’s suffrage, spiritualism, temperance, Indians, childbirth, and more

The University has launched an online archive of manuscripts from the Post family, Rochesterians who were near the center of many of the national movements of the 1800s that helped define their city as one of American’s most progressive.

“Rochester was an epicenter of progressive causes,” says Michael Jarvis, an associate professor of history. As activists during the heady period of reform, the Posts knew well and corresponded with a surprising number of national leaders, from Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony to Sojourner Truth, Harriet Brent Jacobs, and William Cooper Nell.

“They were the Kevin Bacon of the 19th century,” says Jarvis, referring to the famously well-connected Hollywood actor so useful in playing the “six degrees of separation” game of association.

In the early 1840s the Posts became deeply involved in the antislavery movement, using their house at 36 Sophia St., now North Plymouth Avenue, as a very active station on the Underground Railroad, says Lori Birrell, manuscript librarian in Rare Books and Special Collection who has served as co-project manager along with Melissa Mead, director of the Digital Projects Research Center.

“They supported Douglass’s newspaper, the North Star, Amy Post attended the first woman’s rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848, and introduced fellow Rochesterian Susan B. Anthony to the woman’s rights movement,” says Birrell. “The Posts also participated in the controversial spiritualist movement in the late 1840s. Begun by the Fox sisters here in Rochester, followers believed that through mediums (Isaac Post eventually believed himself to be a medium) they could communicate with the dead.”

The papers cover a full century, from 1817 to 1918, with the majority of the material falling during the nearly 50-year span from 1823 to 1872. They include extensive resources related to the Post’s activities in the abolitionist, spiritualist, and women’s rights movements. Other topics for which there is significant material are agriculture, the anti-tobacco movement, childbirth, Chinese immigrants, the Civil War, domestic servants, education, the Friends of Human Progress, freed slaves, Indians, medicine, Quakers, the Reconstruction Era, slavery, and the temperance movement.

The Post papers contain 2,089 letters, manuscripts, newspapers, and other material, and the initial online launch will feature a selection of more than 200 letters. Each letter has been scanned, transcribed, and annotated, a project supported by Randall Whitestone ’83 and Lisa Whitestone. The library plans to digitize the entire collection.

Students prepared the transcriptions. “I had each student select a letter, transcribe it, and do research to explain who is being discussed—and what events,” says Jarvis, who uses the archive as a tool for training graduate students about primary sources. “The students have provided a reader’s guide to make the content of the letter more understandable and useful.”

Margarita Simon Guillory, assistant professor of religion, also incorporates the collection into her class on spiritualism. Reading and transcribing these private letters, she says, “humanized” historical figures for the undergraduates in her class. “It was amazing for them,” she says.

View the Post manuscripts online at http://rbsc.library.rochester.edu/post.

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