by Jean Fagan Yellin
11 Feb. 1813–7 Mar. 1897
Harriet Jacobs, writer and reformer, was born a slave in Edenton. Her grandmother, "Yellow" Molly Horniblow, who was freed in 1828, subsequently bought a house in Edenton and earned her living as a baker. It is probable that her father was the slave Daniel, a skilled carpenter and "old and faithful servant" of Dr. Andrew Knox of Pasquotank County. Her mother was the slave Delilah, property of the tavernkeeper John Horniblow. She had one brother, John S. Jacobs, who was younger than herself. Jacobs had no formal education, but was taught to read and write by Margaret Horniblow, her first mistress.
Publication of Jacobs's pseudonymous slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (ed. by L. Maria Child, 1861), established the fugitive slave Harriet Jacobs as an African-American activist and writer. Her book was republished in England the following year as The Deeper Wrong: Or, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (ed. by L. Maria Child, 1862). Probably the only slave narrative to focus on sexual oppression as well as the oppression of race and condition, Incidents is unique among nineteenth-century American autobiographies. It is a first-person account of a woman's struggle against her oppression in slavery as a sexual object and as a mother. Its avowed purpose was to enlist American women in the struggle against slavery and racism, and it was only after great difficulty that Jacobs published it with the aid of her editor, the abolitionist woman of letters Lydia Maria Child.
Jacobs composed her autobiography between 1853 and 1858. She wrote pseudonymously, calling herself "Linda Brent" and using fictitious names for everyone else. In Incidents, she writes that she was orphaned when a child and at the death of her beloved mistress was sent to a licentious master, "Dr. Flint" (Dr. James Norcom). He subjected her to unrelenting sexual harassment. In her teens she bore two children to "Mr. Sands" (probably Samuel Tredwell Sawyer), another white man. When her jealous master threatened her with concubinage, she ran away. With the help of sympathetic black and white neighbors, she was sheltered by her family and for years remained hidden in the home of her grandmother "Aunt Martha," a freed slave. During this period the father of her children, who had bought them from her master, allowed them to live with her grandmother. Although later he took their little girl to a free state, he failed to keep his promise to emancipate the children.
About 1842, Harriet Jacobs finally escaped to the North, contacted her daughter "Ellen" (Louisa Matilda Jacobs), was joined by her son "Benjamin" (Joseph Jacobs), and found work in New York City as a nursemaid for "Mrs. Bruce" (Mrs. N. P. Willis). In 1849 she moved with her brother "William" to Rochester, N.Y., where both became members of an active group of reformers. Jacobs made a confidante of feminist-abolitionist Quaker Amy Post, who urged her to write the story of her life to aid the antislavery cause.
When—after she had corresponded with Harriet Beecher Stowe and William C. Nell—her book finally appeared in the early months of 1861, Jacobs traveled to various northern cities, attempting to swell sentiment for emancipation by publicizing and circulating Incidents. During the Civil War, she moved to Washington, D.C., to nurse black troops. Then, with her daughter, she followed the Union armies south.
Well known among reformers as "Linda" because of her book, Jacobs embarked upon a career as a relief worker, making herself a link between the philanthropists of the North and the freedpeople of the South. In 1863 she was at Alexandria, Va., employed by the Quakers of Philadelphia to work among the "Colored Refugees"; in 1865 she was at Savannah, Ga., sent on a similar mission by New York Quakers; in 1868 she was in England soliciting funds for a home for the orphans and the aged among the Savannah freedpeople. The letters Jacobs composed throughout these years and published in the reformers' newspapers comprise an extraordinary series of first-person reports on relief work among the freedpeople.
Little is known of her later years in Cambridge, Mass., and in Washington, D.C., where she died. Jacobs was eulogized as "a woman of strong individuality and marked character" by another prominent former slave, the Reverend Francis Grimke. She was buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Mass.
Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself , ed. by L. Maria Child . . . ed. and with an introduction by Jean Fagan Yellin (1987).
Dorothy Sterling, ed., We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (1984).
J. F. Yellin, "Written by Herself : Harriet Jacobs' Slave Narrative," American Literature 53 (1981).
[Runaway slave notice about Harriet Jacobs], Copy from the American Beacon, July 4th 1835, North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC, USA. http://www.history.ncdcr.gov/
1 January 1989 | Yellin, Jean Fagan