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Summary Article: HARRIET ANN JACOBS (1813-1897) from Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia

Born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina, Harriet Jacobs underwent severe trials before escaping to the North and publishing her narrative about the sexual vulnerability of slave women. Though attacks on southern masters’ concubinage and even rape had been standard abolitionist fodder for years, Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) revealed horrors that strengthened the antislavery cause. The book was also remarkable for its portrait of free and enslaved blacks working together and for its indication that southern white women also suffered from slavery.

Born to comparative comfort, since her grandmother had a small business and was free, Jacobs was taught to read and write by a mistress whom she recalled with a sense of love betrayed. This woman’s decision to will Harriet to a three-year-old niece put the young slave girl into the hands of the toddler’s father. James Norcom harassed Jacobs to the extent that the slave girl felt trapped by impossible ideals of virtue and chastity. Although Jacobs foiled Norcom’s designs by taking a white lover, with whom she had two children, this desperate expedient did not free her from her mistress’s father’s power.

Forced to hide in her grandmother’s garret to elude Norcom, Jacobs finally escaped to Philadelphia in 1842 with the help of her grandmother and uncle. Aided by abolitionists, she joined her daughter in Brooklyn but was forced to flee to Boston when Norcom put slave catchers on her trail. After supporting herself and her children as a seamstress, Jacobs returned to the job of nursemaid in a New York family. Later, she moved to Rochester, New York, where her brother was an active abolitionist, but she remained unsettled because of Norcom’s relentless pursuit. In 1852 Jacobs was purchased and freed by Cornelia Willis, whom she served in New York.

Jacobs asked Harriet Beecher Stowe to write the story of her life, but Stowe refused. Determined to make her experiences known, Jacobs decided to write her own book and practiced with shorter antislavery pieces, signed “Linda,” which appeared in New York’s reformist Tribune. In 1859 Jacobs arranged for the publication of her manuscript with a Boston firm. Their request for a preface from Maria Child led to one final editing and the decision that characters’ identities should be disguised. Thus Jacobs’s autobiography is told as the story of Linda Brent. Favorably received, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was republished in England as The Deeper Wrong (1862), and portions of the book appeared in Child’s Freedmen’s Book (1865).

During the Civil War, Jacobs did relief work among former slaves in Washington, D.C., and then taught and nursed in Alexandria, Virginia. After the war, Jacobs and her daughter traveled to southern cities carrying relief supplies. In 1868 the two women sailed to England to try to raise funds for a Savannah orphanage and home for the aged, but Jacobs later advised against building because of southern racist agitation. She died in 1897 and was buried in Massachusetts, near her brother John.

See also: Child, Lydia M.; Narratives; Stowe, Harriet Beecher.

For Further Reading
  • Yellin, Jean Fagan, ed. 1987. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Barbara Ryan
    Copyright 2007 by ABC-CLIO, Inc.

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