Jacobs, Harriet Ann

views updated

Jacobs, Harriet Ann

March 7, 1897

Harriet Jacobsslave narrator, reformer, antislavery activist, and Civil War and Reconstruction relief workerwas born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina. Jacobs's major contribution is her narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861). The most comprehensive antebellum autobiography by an African-American woman, Incidents is the first-person account of Jacobs's pseudonymous narrator, who writes of her struggle against sexual oppression and her fight for freedom. After publishing her book, Jacobs devoted her life to providing relief for the black Civil War refugees in Alexandria, Virginia, and Savannah, Georgia.

Writing as "Linda Brent," Jacobs tells the story of her life in the South as a slave and as a fugitive, and of her life as a fugitive slave in the North. Breaking taboos forbidding women to discuss their sexuality, she writes of the abuse she suffered from her licentious master, Dr. James Norcom, whom she calls "Dr. Flint." She confesses that to prevent him from making her his concubine, at sixteen she became sexually involved with a white neighbor. Their alliance produced two children, Joseph (c. 1829?), whom she calls "Benny," and Louisa Matilda (18331917), called "Ellen." Jacobs describes running away from Norcom in 1835 and the almost seven years she spent in hiding in a tiny crawlspace above a porch in her grandmother's Edenton home.

Jacobs further recounts her 1842 escape to New York City, her reunion with her children, who had been sent north, and her subsequent move to Rochester, where she became part of the circle of abolitionists around Frederick Douglass' newspaper The North Star. Condemning the compliance of the North in the slave system, she describes her North Carolina masters' attempts to catch her in New York after passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Jacobs explains that despite her principled decision not to bow to the slave system by being purchased, in 1853 her New York employer, Mrs. Nathaniel Parker Willis (called "Mrs. Bruce") bought her from Norcom's family. Like other slave narrators, she ends her book with her freedom and the freedom of her children.

Most of the extraordinary events that "Linda Brent" narrates have been documented as having occurred in Jacobs's life. In addition, letters that Jacobs wrote while composing her book present an unique glimpse of its inception, composition, and publication and recount her complex relationships with black abolitionists such as William C. Nell and white abolitionists such as Amy Post and Lydia Maria Child. They also form an interesting commentary on Jacobs's northern employer, the litterateur Nathaniel Parker Willis, and on Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the runaway best-seller Uncle Tom's Cabin, whom Jacobs tried to interest in her narrative.

Although Incidents was published anonymously, Jacobs's name was connected with her book from the first; only in the twentieth century were its authorship and its autobiographical status disputed. Incidents made Jacobs known to northern abolitionists, and with the outbreak of the Civil War she used this newfound celebrity to establish a new career for herself. Jacobs collected money and supplies for the "contraband"black refugees crowding behind the lines of the Union army in Washington, D.C., and in occupied Alexandria, Virginiaand returned south.

Supported by Quaker groups and the newly formed New England Freedmen's Aid Society, in 1863 Jacobs and her daughter moved to Alexandria, where they distributed emergency relief supplies, organized primary medical care, and established the Jacobs Free Schoola black-led institution providing black teachers for the refugees. In 1865 mother and daughter moved to Savannah, where they continued their relief work. Throughout the war years Harriet and Louisa Jacobs reported on their southern relief efforts in the northern press and in newspapers in England, where Jacobs's book had appeared as The Deeper Wrong: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1862). In 1868 they sailed to England and successfully raised money for Savannah's black orphans and aged.

But in the face of the increasing violence in the South, Jacobs and her daughter then retreated to Massachusetts. In Boston they were connected with the newly formed New England Women's Club. Later, in Cambridge, Jacobs ran a boardinghouse for Harvard faculty and students for several years. Harriet and Louisa Jacobs later moved to Washington, D.C., where they established a series of boardinghouses and the daughter was employed at Howard University. In 1896, when the National Association of Colored Women held its organizing meetings in Washington, D.C., Harriet Jacobs was confined to a wheelchair, but it seems likely that Louisa was in attendance. The following spring Harriet Jacobs died at her Washington home. She is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge.

See also Douglass, Frederick; Howard University; National Association of Colored Women; Nell, William Cooper; Slave Narratives


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.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. "Text and Contexts of Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself." In The Slave's Narrative, edited by Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., pp. 262282. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Introduction to Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987, pp. xiiixxxiv.

Yellin, Jean Fagan, Harriet Jacobs: A Life. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

jean fagan yellin (1996)
Updated by author 2005

About this article

Jacobs, Harriet Ann

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article