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Jacobs, Harriet Ann

Black Women in America

Jean Fagan Yellin

Jacobs, Harriet Ann 

(b. 1813; d. March 1897), author and abolitionist.

Harriet Ann Jacobs is now known as the author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861), the most important slave narrative by an African American woman. Jacobs is also important because of the role she played as a relief worker among black Civil War refugees in Alexandria, Virginia, and Savannah, Georgia. Throughout most of the twentieth century, Jacobs’s autobiography was thought to be a novel by a white writer, and her relief work was unknown. With the 1987 publication of an annotated edition of her book, however, Jacobs became established as the author of the most comprehensive antebellum autobiography by an African American woman.

Jacobs, Harriet AnnClick to view larger

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,

1861, title page. This work by Harriet Jacobs is among the most important slave narratives of African Americans. She was identified as its author in 1987, when an annotated edition was published. University of North Carolina

Harriet Ann Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina. Her mother, Delilah, was the daughter of the slave Molly Horniblow and was owned by her mistress Margaret Horniblow; her father, Elijah, a skilled carpenter, was the slave of Dr. Andrew Knox and probably a son of the white Henry Jacobs. Incidents is Jacobs’s account of a slave woman’s sexual oppression and of her struggle for freedom. Written in the first person by Jacobs’s pseudonymous narrator “Linda Brent,” the book is a remarkably accurate (although incomplete) rendering of Jacobs’s life up to her 1852 emancipation. It describes her life as a slave and fugitive in the South and as a fugitive in the North. In this narrative, Jacobs’s Linda Brent credits her family, and especially her grandmother (who had gained her freedom and established a bakery in the town), with sustaining her and her younger brother, John S. Jacobs, in their youthful efforts to achieve a sense of selfhood despite their slave status.

When Jacobs was six years old, her mother died, and she was taken into the home of her mistress, who taught her to sew and to read, skills she later used to support herself and to protest against slavery. But when in 1825 Jacobs’s mistress died, the slave girl was not freed, as she had expected. Instead, her mistress’s will bequeathed her, along with a “bureau & work table & their contents,” to a three-year-old niece, and Jacobs was sent to live in the Edenton home of the little girl’s father, Dr. James Norcom (“Dr. Flint” in Incidents). As the slave girl approached adolescence, the middle-aged Norcom subjected her to unrelenting sexual harassment and, when she was sixteen, threatened her with concubinage. To stop him, Jacobs became sexually involved with a neighboring white attorney, young Samuel Tredwell Sawyer (“Mr. Sands”). Their alliance produced two children: Joseph (c. 1829-?), called “Benny,” and Louisa Matilda (1833-1917), called “little Ellen” in the narrative. When Jacobs was twenty-one, Norcom said if she did not agree to become his concubine, he would send her out to one of his plantations. Jacobs again rejected his sexual demands and was sent out out to the country. When she learned that Norcom also planned to make her children plantation slaves, she feared that they would never be free and decided to act.

In June 1835 Jacobs escaped. She reasoned that if she was missing, Norcom would be willing to sell her and the children, and that their father would buy and free them all. Young Joseph and little Louisa were indeed bought by Sawyer, who permitted them to continue living in town with Jacobs’s grandmother. Jacobs was hidden by neighbors, both black and white, but with Norcom searching for her, she was unable to escape from Edenton. As the summer wore on, her uncle built her a hiding place in a tiny crawlspace above a porch in her grandmother’s home. For almost seven years, Jacobs hid in this space, which, she wrote, measured seven feet wide, nine feet long, and—at its tallest—three feet high.

Jacobs, Harriet AnnClick to view larger

“$100 Reward.”

This advertisement for the capture of Harriet Jacobs appeared in a daily newspaper, the American Beacon of Norfolk, Virginia, on 4 July 1835. It ran on alternate days for two weeks. North Carolina State Archives

Finally, in 1842, she escaped and was reunited with her children, who had been sent north. In New York City, Jacobs found work as a domestic in the family of the litterateur Nathaniel Parker Willis. In 1849 she moved to Rochester to join her brother, who had also become a fugitive from slavery. John S. Jacobs was now an antislavery lecturer and activist, and through him, Harriet Jacobs became part of the Rochester abolitionist circle around Frederick Douglass’s newspaper, the North Star. After passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, she left Rochester for New York City, where her North Carolina masters tried to seize her and her children on the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Determined not to be sent back into slavery or to bow to the slave system by permitting herself to be bought, Jacobs fled to Massachusetts. In 1852, however, without her knowledge, Cornelia Grinnell Willis arranged for her and her children to be bought from Norcom’s family. Jacobs and her children were free.

Amid conflicting emotions—determination to aid the antislavery cause, humiliation at being purchased, and a deep impulse perhaps prompted by the death of her beloved grandmother in Edenton—Jacobs decided to make public the story of her struggle against her sexual abuse in slavery. A few years earlier, she had whispered her history to Amy Post, her Rochester Quaker abolitionist-feminist friend, and Post had urged her to write a book informing northern women about the sexual abuse of female slaves. Now Jacobs was ready. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s newly published Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) had become a runaway best seller, and Jacobs’s first thought was to try to enlist Stowe to write her story. When she learned that Stowe wanted to incorporate her life story into The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), however, Jacobs decided instead to write her life herself. After practicing her writing skills in letters she sent to the New York Tribune, she began her book. Five years later, it was finished. Soliciting letters of introduction to British abolitionists from Boston antislavery leaders, Jacobs sailed to England to sell her manuscript to a publisher. She returned home unsuccessful. Finally, with the help of the African American abolitionist William C. Nell and the white abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, Jacobs brought the book out herself. Early in 1861, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself was published by the author, with an introduction by L. Maria Child, who was identified as the editor on the title page.

Although Jacobs’s authorship was later forgotten, she was from the first identified as “Linda Brent.” Reviewed in the abolitionist and African American press, Incidents made Jacobs a minor celebrity among its audience of antislavery women. Within months, however, the nation was at war, and in the crisis Jacobs launched a second public career. Using her new celebrity as an author, she approached Northern antislavery women for money and supplies for the “contrabands”—black refugees crowding behind the Union lines in Washington, DC, and Alexandria, Virginia (which had been occupied by the army). With the support of Quaker groups and of the newly formed New England Freedmen’s Aid Society, in 1863 Harriet Jacobs and her daughter Louisa went to Alexandria. There they provided emergency health care and established the Jacobs Free School, a black-owned and black-taught institution for the children of the refugees.

Throughout the war years, Jacobs and her daughter functioned as war correspondents, reporting on their Southern relief efforts in the Northern press and in England, where in 1862 her book had been published as The Deeper Wrong: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. In May 1864 Jacobs was named a member of the executive committee of the Women’s National Loyal League, an antislavery feminist group mounting a mass petition campaign to urge Congress to pass a constitutional amendment ending chattel slavery. In July 1865 the mother-daughter team left Alexandria, and in 1866 they moved to Savannah, where they again worked to provide educational and medical facilities for the freedpeople. The following year, Jacobs’s daughter Louisa joined Susan B. Anthony and Charles Lenox Remond to campaign in upstate New York for the Equal Rights Association—a group of radical feminists and abolitionists who worked for the inclusion of the enfranchisement of African Americans and women in the revised New York State Constitution.

In 1868 Harriet and Louisa Jacobs went to London to raise money for an orphanage and home for the aged in the black Savannah community. Aided by British supporters of Garrisonian abolitionism, they raised £100 sterling for the Savannah project. Despite their success, however, they recommended to their New York Quaker sponsors that the building not be built. The Ku Klux Klan was riding and burning; it would not tolerate the establishment of new black institutions.

In the face of the increasing violence in the South, Jacobs and her daughter retreated to Massachusetts. In Boston, Jacobs was briefly employed as clerk of the fledgling New England Women’s Club, perhaps with the patronage of her old employer and friend Cornelia Grinnell Willis and her New England Freedmen’s Aid Society colleague Ednah Dow Cheney, both club members. As the new decade began, Jacobs settled in Cambridge, where for several years she ran a boardinghouse for Harvard students and faculty.

When Jacobs, with her daughter Louisa, later moved to Washington, DC, she continued to work among the destitute freedpeople, and Louisa was employed first in the newly established “colored schools,” then at Howard University. They did not return south, and in 1892, Jacobs sold her grandmother’s house and lot in Edenton, property that her family had managed to arrange for her to inherit despite her earlier status as a fugitive. When in 1896 the National Association of Colored Women held organizing meetings in Washington, DC, Louisa Jacobs apparently attended. The following spring, Harriet Jacobs died at her Washington home. She is buried in the Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Harriet Jacobs’s life spanned her experiences before the Civil War as a slave in the South, as a fugitive in the South and in the North, and as an abolitionist activist and slave narrator in the North. She served as a relief worker among black refugees in the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction and as a war correspondent, commenting on their condition. Later she was involved as an adjunct to the post-Civil War club movement among white women, and she witnessed the birth of the black women’s club movement. No other woman is known to have possessed this range of experience and to have written about it.


Andrews, William L. The Changing Moral Discourse of Nineteenth-Century African American Women’s Autobiography: Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckley. In De/Colonizing the Subject: The Politics of Gender in Women’s Autobiography, edited by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Braxton, Joanne M., and Sharon Zuber, Silences in Harriet ‘Linda Brent’ Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism, edited by Elaine Hedges and Shelley Fisher Fishkin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Doriani, Beth Maclay. Black Womanhood in Nineteenth-Century America: Subversion and Self-Construction in Two Women’s Autobiographies. American Quarterly 43.2 (June 1991).Find this resource:

Fleischner, Jennifer. Mastering Slavery: Memory, Family, and Identity in Women’s Slave Narratives. New York: New York University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Foreman, P. Gabrielle. The Spoken and the Silenced in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Our Nig. Callaloo 13.2 (Spring 1990).Find this resource:

Foster, Frances Smith. Written by Herself: Literary Productions by African American Women, 1746-1892. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Garfield, Deborah M., and Rafia Zafar, eds. Harriet Jacobs and “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl”: New Critical Essays. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861). Edited by Jean Fagan Yellin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Kaplan, Carla. Recuperating Agents: Narrative Contracts, Emancipatory Readers, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. In Provoking Agents: Gender and Agency in Theory and Practice, edited by Judith Kegan Gardiner. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.Find this resource:

McKay, Nellie Y. The Girls Who Became the Women: Childhood Memories in the Autobiographies of Harriet Jacobs, Mary Church Terrell, and Anne Moody. In Tradition and the Talents of Women, edited by Florence Howe. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Mullen, Harryette, Runaway Tongue: Resistant Orality in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Our Nig, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and Beloved. In The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America, edited by Shirley Samuels. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Painter, Nell Irvin. Three Southern Women and Freud: A Non-Exceptionalist Approach to Race, Class, and Gender in the Slave South. In Feminists Revision History, edited by Ann-Louise Shapiro. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Warner, Anne Bradford. Santa Claus Ain’t a Real Man: Incidents and Gender. In Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts, edited by Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan V. Donaldson. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1997.Find this resource:

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Harriet Jacobs: A Life. New York: Basic Civitas, 2004.Find this resource:

Manuscript Collections

Manuscript sources on Harriet Jacobs can be found at the Boston Public Library; the Sydney Howard Gay papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries, New York; the Julia Wilbur papers, Quaker Collection, Haverford College Library, Haverford, MA; the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston; the Norcom Family papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh; the Isaac and Amy Post Family papers, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY; Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA; and the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA.

Jean Fagan Yellin