The life story of Harriet Ann Jacobs, born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813, gives insight into the horrors faced by the enslaved, their desire for freedom, and their struggle to achieve freedom. Harriet shared her story with the world through her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, published anonymously in 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War. Her story of resistance and escape, after hiding for nearly seven years in an attic, added to the growing body of anti-slavery, abolitionist literature.
Harriet began life unaware of her enslaved status. She stated in the opening line of her narrative, "I was born a slave; but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away."1 She lived with her mother, Delilah, a slave of Margaret Horniblow, until she was six-years-old. When her mother died, she fell under Horniblow's direct charge, learning to sew as well as read and write. It wasn't until the death of her mistress in 1825 that she experienced the harsher realities of slavery. Margaret Horniblow willed twelve-year-old Jacobs to her three-year-old niece, Mary Matilda Norcom. Because her new owner was only a child, Jacobs had to answer directly to Mary Matilda's father, Dr. James Norcom. It was under his authority that Harriet first experienced the sexual harassment that was common for many female slaves.
Jacobs resisted Norcom, and in an effort to discourage his advances, she began a relationship with a white neighbor and lawyer by the name of Samuel Tredwell Sawyer. This relationship resulted in two children named Joseph and Louisa Matilda. Dr. Norcom continued to harass Harriet and in 1835 threatened that if she did not give in to his demands, he would send her from his town house and force her to work as a field hand at one of his plantations. Harriet steadfastly held her ground and Norcom followed through with his threat. Upon learning that Norcom also planned to send her children to the plantation, to be "broke in"2 as she later wrote in her book, Jacobs decided to run away. Her hope was that Norcom would no longer feel the need to use the children as pawns to get Jacobs to comply with his demands once she was gone. If she was successful, she believed he would sell the children. Jacobs went into hiding and, shortly thereafter, through a slave broker, Sawyer purchased their two children along with Harriet's brother John. Sawyer allowed the children to continue to live with Jacobs' grandmother, Molly Horniblow, a free black woman who earned her living as a baker. He did not, however, legally emancipate the children.3
Harriet hid in the homes of friends initially and eventually came to hide in an attic crawl space over the storeroom off the porch of her grandmother's house on West King Street in Edenton. For nearly seven years, Jacobs stayed in the cramped space measuring nine feet long by seven feet wide and only three feet high at its highest point. Norcom looked for Jacobs without success. He advertised for her return and traveled north in search of her. Little did he know, however, that she was often directly above him when he came to Molly Horniblow's house, hoping to catch Jacobs there. Harriet remained hidden, only venturing out of her self-induced prison for brief spells at night to straighten her back and exercise her limbs. To fool Norcom, Jacobs wrote letters which indicated she was in the north. She then had the letters smuggled north and mailed back to Edenton. If Norcom intercepted the letters and read them, he would continue to think she had left Edenton. Many years later, Jacobs recalled her time hiding in the attic in this excerpt from a letter to her friend Ednah Dow Cheney:
I am sitting under the old roof twelve feet from the spot where I suffered all the crushing weight of slavery. Thank God, the bitter cup is drained of its last dreg. There is no more need of hiding places to conceal slave Mothers. Yet it was little to purchase the blessings of freedom. I could have worn this poor life out there to save my Children from the misery and degradation of Slavery.4
In 1842, Jacobs escaped Edenton on a boat leaving out of Edenton harbor, arriving first in Philadelphia and later making her way by rail to New York. Many fugitive slaves made similar journeys escaping through southern ports and traveling coastal waterways. Such routes ultimately became known as the Maritime Underground Railroad, leading to free states such as Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and beyond. However, simply getting to the North did not mean that runaways could truly live free, especially when Congress strengthened the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. To truly attain freedom, a fugitive slave would have to either travel all the way to Canada or find a way to purchase themselves or be purchased by people who intended to aid the freedom seeker.
In New York, Jacobs found work as a nursemaid to the Willis family, prominent abolitionists, who sheltered her from runaway slave catchers. Now a fugitive slave and under constant threat of capture, Jacobs began to develop into an abolitionist and activist in her own right. Norcom died in 1850 but the threat to Jacobs did not disappear. For two more years, she evaded capture by fleeing to Massachusetts when word arrived that she was in danger. Eventually, Mr. Willis purchased Jacobs from Norcom's daughter and granted her freedom in 1852.
Jacobs moved to Rochester, N.Y. and began to work with her brother, John S. Jacobs, an abolitionist lecturer at the Anti-Slavery Office and Reading Room. Here, she met and befriended Amy Post and other anti-slavery feminists. Encouraged by Post to write her story, Harriet Jacobs began to develop the manuscript for Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1853. Although completed in 1858, it was not published until 1861. Jacobs did not identify herself as the author, nor did she use any real names in the narrative. The preface, written by Lydia Maria Child, a well-known feminist abolitionist and author, lent credence to the narrative. The book was not merely the story of one enslaved woman but also an appeal for the abolition of slavery:
In view of these things, why are ye silent, ye free men and women of the north? Why do your tongues falter in maintenance of the right? Would that I had more ability! But my heart is so full, and my pen is so weak! There are noble men and women who plead for us, striving to help those who cannot help themselves. God bless them!5
Jacobs spent the Civil War years speaking against slavery and volunteering among the U.S. Colored Troops and contrabands in refugee camps in Washington, D.C. and Alexandria, Va. There, she offered the following words at a flag presentation for soldiers:
Soldiers, what we have got, came through the strength and valor of your right arms. Three years ago this flag had no significance for you, we could not cherish it as our emblem of freedom. You then had no part in the bloody struggle for your country, your patriotism was spurned; but to-day you are in arms for the freedom of your race and the defense of your country—to-day this flag is significant to you. Soldiers you have made it the symbol of freedom for the slave, unfurl it, stand by it and fight for it, until the breeze upon which it floats shall be so pure, that a slave cannot breathe its air.6
She and her daughter Louisa also established a school for freedmen in Alexandria. In describing it, she stated in a letter dated April 13, 1863:
I must say one word about our schools. We have 125 scholars; we have no paid teachers as yet, the children have been taught by convalescent soldiers, who kindly volunteer their services until called to join their regiment.7
Throughout the Reconstruction era, they continued relief work. Harriet even visited Edenton in 1867 to assist the freedmen in that area.
Jacobs died in Washington, D.C. in 1897. Her words offer a view that expands past her own lifetime. In a letter regarding a fair to raise funds for "disabled colored soldiers," Jacobs predicted:
I see the dawning of a better future for us. Since the Presidential election, I feel that this Republic will live, and in her new life learn justice and a broader humanity to the race she has hitherto despised—a race which, by its present bearing, is awakening respect from its stoutest opponents.8
1. Jacobs, Harriet, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 5.
2. Jacobs, Harriet, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 94.
3. Jacobs, Harriet, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), xvii.
4. Harriet Jacobs to Rev. J. Sella Martin. 13 April 1863. The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, Ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), Vol. 2: 715.
5. Jacobs, Harriet, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), 30.
6. Harriet Jacobs to Rev. J. Sella Martin. 13 April 1863. The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, Ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), Vol. 2: 578.
7. Harriet Jacobs to Rev. J. Sella Martin. 13 April 1863. The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, Ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), Vol. 2: 478.
8. Harriet Jacobs to Rev. J. Sella Martin. 13 April 1863. The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, Ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), Vol. 2: 610.