Jacobs, Harriet A. (1813–1897)

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Jacobs, Harriet A. (1813–1897)

American abolitionist and writer who was born into slavery and spent nearly seven years hiding in an attic before escaping to freedom. Name variations: (pseudonym) Linda Brent. Born Harriet Ann Jacobs into slavery in the autumn of 1813 (exact date unrecorded), in Edenton, North Carolina; died in Washington, D.C., on March 7, 1897; daughter of slave parents Daniel Jacobs (a carpenter) and Delilah; never attended school; taught to read and write by first owner, then was self-educated; never married; children: Joseph (b. 1829); Louisa Matilda (b. 1833).

Mother died (1819); first owner died and bequeathed Jacobs to three-year-old niece (1825); father died (1826); after ongoing threats of rape by owner Dr. James Norcom, began a relationship with white neighbor Samuel Sawyer; gave birth to son by Sawyer (1829); daughter by Sawyer born (1833); sent to a plantation and ran away, eventually hiding under roof of grandmother's house where she would remain for seven years; Sawyer purchased son and daughter (1835); escaped to the North and worked in New York as nursemaid to Willis family (1842); fleeing slave hunters, went to Boston with daughter and worked as seamstress (1844); worked in Anti-Slavery Reading Room in Rochester, New York (1849); moved to New York and worked for Willis family again (1850); purchased and freed by Cornelia Grinnell Willis (1852); approached Harriet Beecher Stowe about writing her story and decided to write the book herself, while working for the Willis family (1853); Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl published anonymously, with white abolitionist Lydia Maria Child as editor (1861); throughout Civil War and aftermath, took part in relief work and efforts to help freed slaves (1862–68).

Despite the language of liberty and equality in its founding documents, the United States at its very inception recognized and permitted slavery. U.S. law defined slaves as chattel, property that could be bought and sold at will. Seemingly standard biographical information—like name, family, marital status, education—is often difficult to unearth for women and men who were slaves, because the laws of slavery worked to deny such information. Not considered citizens or even legal persons, under the Constitution slaves were counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional representation. They could not vote or hold office. According to the laws of most slave states, they could not own property, attend school, or marry. Because their children were also considered property, slaves could not control their children's destinies, or even stop an infant from being sold. They could be brutally beaten, raped, or otherwise abused without legal recourse. The limited protections that did exist were essentially unenforceable, since slaves (and in many cases free blacks) were not allowed to testify against white people. The laws attempted to deny slaves a voice in myriad other ways. In many states, it was illegal for a slave to learn or to teach reading and writing, punishable by fines, imprisonment or whipping. It was into this America that Harriet Ann Jacobs was born a slave who would one day commit the powerful, subversive act of writing her own story.

Weeks before the Civil War began, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself appeared in print. Written by Jacobs, the book had a first-person narrator named Linda Brent, and the only name on the title page was that of editor Lydia Maria Child . While Jacobs remained anonymous, the book revealed details of her life, particularly her struggles under slavery and her ultimately successful efforts to free herself and her children. Although her narrator is not identical to Jacobs, the book clearly is an autobiographical narrative, both using and subverting techniques of sentimental fiction to launch an extended critique of Southern slavery and Northern complicity.

"The bill of sale!" Those words struck me like a blow. So I was sold at last! A human being sold in the free city of New York! The bill of sale is on record, and future generations will learn from it that women were articles of traffic in New York, late in the nineteenth century of the Christian religion.

—Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1813 (the precise date of her birth is not recorded). Jacobs' family members lived on the margins of freedom. Her father, Daniel Jacobs, was a slave, but he was permitted to hire himself out as a carpenter while paying his owner for the "privilege." What little money he kept, he saved in the hopes of one day buying his children out of slavery. Harriet's mother Delilah (there is no record of a last name) belonged to a different owner than her husband, but the two were permitted to live together. Under slave law, owners were not required to recognize slave marriage in any way. Although very little is known about Delilah, more is known about Delilah's mother Molly Horniblow . At a young age, Horniblow was freed when her owner-father died and emancipated the family, but while sailing to Britain during the Revolutionary War the family was captured once again and sold back into slavery. Like Harriet's father, Molly Horniblow also eventually worked for her own money. Under her new owner, she sold goods that she baked and tried to save the cash needed to free her family members. Though she was to be freed when her mistress died, the executor of the will (the man who was to become Harriet Jacobs' owner and nemesis) instead put her on the auction block. An illiterate old woman—sister of the deceased mistress—bought her for a few dollars, signing the bill of sale with an X, and freed her. Horniblow continued to work as a baker and lived in her own home near her grandchildren, providing Harriet Jacobs and her brother with food, clothing, and a safe haven whenever possible. Even though free, Molly Horniblow had few rights as a black woman. Nevertheless, she was well-respected in the community, among both blacks and whites, and she was a strong moral force for her family and in the community at large. Jacobs' grandmother provided her with physical and spiritual sustenance throughout her years in slavery, and Jacobs writes about her with great respect in the narrative.

One of Jacobs' central arguments in Incidents is that slavery itself is evil, and that the kindness of individuals is fleeting and does not protect against the injustices of slavery, under which all slaves ultimately are merely property. Harriet was only six when her mother Delilah died, and the death led Harriet to her first awareness that she was a slave. She describes her first mistress as having been kind to her in her childhood, and it was this owner who taught the young Jacobs to read and write. But when the mistress died in 1825, a deathbed postscript to her will bequeathed twelve-year-old Jacobs, along with a bureau and work table, to her three-year-old niece Mary Norcom . Jacobs spent the rest of her slave years under the legal and physical control of the girl's father, Dr. James Norcom. Harriet's father Daniel, a slave on a nearby plantation, died in 1826, one year after Harriet and her brother John had moved into the Norcom household. Although they received a certain degree of protection from their grandmother, they faced the horror of slavery that was all around them, on their own and nearby plantations, as slaves were beaten and tortured as well as subjected to daily abuse by back-breaking labor, hunger, and other deprivations.

Unlike the majority of Southern slaves—male and female—Jacobs did not engage in fieldwork, but Norcom was a harsh and lecherous master. From a very young age, Jacobs was subjected to his advances and threats, which prompted jealousy and hostility from Norcom's wife. While Incidents was intended as an appeal to white women to be allies, Jacobs also acknowledges the difficulties of such alliances. She uses sarcasm throughout her narrative to condemn the hypocrisy of a slaveholding society that invents delicate standards of white womanhood while permitting white women to be brutal slaveowners and permitting black women to be brutalized. Jacobs' narrator notes that her owner, "like many southern women, was totally deficient in energy. She had not strength to superintend her household affairs; but her nerves were so strong, that she could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped, till the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash."

While denying slaves the ability to legally marry, slave law also failed to protect slave women against rape by owners or other white men. Jacobs was under constant harassment and threat of rape from Norcom, with no legal recourse. Norcom also denied her request to marry a free black man. She writes of his abuse:

But I now entered on my fifteenth year—a sad epoch in the life of a slave girl. My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. Young as I was, I could not remain ignorant of their import. … He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of. I turned from him with disgust and hatred. But he was my master. I was compelled to live under the same roof with him—where I saw a man forty years my senior daily violating the most sacred commandments of nature. He told me I was his property; that I must be subject to his will in all things. My soul revolted against the mean tyranny. But where could I turn for protection?

In an effort to repel her pursuer, Jacobs entered a relationship with an apparently sympathetic white man, Samuel Sawyer. She was fully aware that by entering a sexual relationship outside of marriage she had violated her day's societal standards of female behavior; she was also aware, however, that the dominant standards of womanhood inherently excluded slave women. In her narrative, careful in telling readers of her choice, she places her decision in the context of slavery, appealing to her white female readers while simultaneously pointing out the differences in their situations:

O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your affection, whose homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave girl too severely! If slavery had been abolished, I, also, could have married the man of my choice; I could have had a home shielded by the laws.

Jacobs both invoked and critiqued the patriarchal standards of womanhood that condemned her for her relationship with Sawyer. Upon finding that Harriet was pregnant, her grandmother was dismayed at what she regarded as a moral failure: "[H]as it come to this? I had rather see you dead than to see you as you now are. You are a disgrace to your dead mother. … Go away! … and never come to my house, again."

Jacobs chose this relationship with Sawyer strategically—to protect herself from Norcom and to protect any children she might have. She hoped that her owner might become so angry at her behavior that he would sell her. Reconciling with her grandmother, she gave birth in 1829 to a son by Sawyer, Joseph Jacobs, in her grandmother's house, and later to a daughter by Sawyer, Louisa Matilda Jacobs (1833).

Rather than prompt Norcom to sell her as she had hoped, Jacobs' relationship with Sawyer led Norcom to continue to pursue, curse, and threaten her, actions to which he now added threats against her children. According to the laws of slavery, Jacobs' children were the property of her owner, even though the father was free. Jacobs was fully aware of this law linking children to their mother's status, a regulation that particularly affected the children of women impregnated by their masters. When the Norcom character in Jacobs' narrative makes a threat to sell the children, the narrator states: "I knew the law gave him power to fulfil it; for slaveholders have been cunning enough to enact that 'the child shall follow the condition of the mother,' not of the father; thus taking care that licentiousness shall not interfere with avarice." In fact, many male slaveholders increased their "property" by impregnating their female slaves, institutionalizing rape as an economic benefit to the slaveholding class.

Children were also used as tools of manipulation. As punishment for her lack of response to his advances, Norcom sent Jacobs to his son's plantation, separating her from her children, who remained living with Molly Horniblow. Norcom also threatened that her children would be sold off when Jacobs' official owner, his daughter Mary Norcom, married, unless Jacobs became his mistress. If she consented, he promised to allow her to live with her children in a cottage. Unwilling to let him determine the fate of her children, Jacobs made the difficult decision to run away. She writes in Incidents:

My mind was made up; I was resolved that I would foil my master and save my children, or I would perish in the attempt. … My grandmother was much cast down. I had my secret hopes; but I must fight my battle alone. I had a woman's pride, and a mother's love for my children; and I resolved that out of the darkness of this hour a brighter dawn should rise for them. My master had power and law on his side; I had a determined will. There is might in each.

When Jacobs learned that Norcom planned to send the children, who were still very young, to his brutal son's plantation to have them put to work and "broken in," she escaped and hid in a friend's home. Advertisements seeking her capture were posted on every corner and in all public places within miles. Norcom ran the following ad on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for two weeks in Norfolk, Virginia's American Beacon:


Will be given for the approhension [sic] and delivery of my Servant Girl HARRIET. She is a light mulatto 21 years of age, about 5 feet 4 inches high, of a thick and corpulent habit, having on her head a thick covering of black hair that curls naturally, but which can be easily combed straight. She speaks easily and fluently, and has an agreeable carriage and address. Being a good seamstress, she has been accustomed to dress well, and has a variety of very fine clothes, made in the prevailing fashion, and will probably appear, if abroad, tricked out in gay and fashionable finery. As this girl absconded from the plantation of my son without any known cause or provocation, it is probable she designs to transport herself to the North.

The above reward, with all reasonable charges, will be given for apprehending her, or securing her in any prison or jail within the U. States.

All persons are hereby forewarned against harboring or entertaining her, or being in any way instrumental in her escape, under the most rigorous penalties of the law.

Edenton, N.C. June 30

Instead of running to the North, Jacobs eventually concealed herself in a small crawlspace in her grandmother's house. Starting in 1835, at the age of 21, she found refuge for nearly seven years in that small hidden space between the ceiling and the sloped roof, nine feet by seven feet, and only about three feet high at its tallest point. Her family—except for her children, who were not told where she was—spoke to her and gave her food through a small trap door, but only in the darkness of night. She made a small hole in the wall, giving her enough light to sew and read, and permitting her to watch the street below, often seeing her children and others who thought she was miles away. While voluntarily imprisoned in her grandmother's attic, Jacobs used her ability to write to wage psychological warfare against her owner Norcom. Holed up just yards from him, she wrote phony letters and had friends mail them back to North Carolina from as far away as New York and Canada. When Norcom would come across the letters, as Jacobs intended, he often would set off in search of her. He was convinced that he could outsmart her, when in fact she was orchestrating his unsuccessful efforts. In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs recognized the power of writing in many ways. Her descriptions were intended to persuade a Northern audience of the evils of slavery. In one scene in the book, told through the characters of Linda Brent and Dr. Flint (Norcom), the escaped slave overhears Flint reading to the grandmother his own falsified version of one of the slave's faked letters. In his version, the fugitive Linda is miserable, regretful, and wants to return to slavery from her exile in the North. The grandmother listens, knowing her granddaughter is crouched above, and knowing that the respected doctor is lying. Eventually, thinking Jacobs was long gone, Norcom sold the children, and their father, Sawyer, purchased them. Jacobs, her limbs numb and atrophied, still needed to find a way to get herself and her children safely to the North.

Part of the plan was for Sawyer to free his children, but he failed to do so immediately, frustrating Jacobs who was both physically and legally helpless. Sawyer had since married and been elected to Congress, and, like many seemingly well-meaning owners who promised freedom to their slaves, he persisted in claiming their labors a little longer. Jacobs was faced with two profound obstacles: Norcom, who claimed the sale was never legal and the children still belonged to his family, and Sawyer, who intended to send the children to his own family in the North instead of freeing them. "So, then," concludes the narrator in Incidents, "after all I had endured for their sakes, my poor children were between two fires; between my old master and their new master! And I was powerless. There was no protecting arm of the law for me to invoke."

Orchestrating everything to the best of her ability from her tiny prison, Jacobs eventually arranged to have both children sent to the North and later, in 1842, fled to the North herself. After Jacobs finally left North Carolina, Norcom and his family continued to try to track her down and return her to slavery. She supported herself and her children by working as a nursemaid for a white family in New York. Under pursuit by slave catchers, Jacobs was chased from New York to Boston and back several times between 1843 and 1846. She eventually returned to work for the Willis family in New York, and it was Nathaniel Parker Willis' second wife, Cornelia Grinnell Willis , who purchased and emancipated her in 1852, 17 years after Jacobs had first fled from slavery. While relieved to be finally free, Jacobs was appalled at the idea of being bought and sold like a piece of merchandise to gain the freedom that should have been her right. In her book, the narrator describes hearing about the bill of sale, the legal record of her freedom that horrified her as much as it freed her:

"The bill of sale!" Those words struck me like a blow. So I was sold at last! A human being sold in the free city of New York! The bill of sale is on record, and future generations will learn from it that women were articles of traffic in New York, late in the nineteenth century of the Christian religion.

Grateful to her benefactor, Jacobs also acknowledged how this debt of gratitude kept her in a sense bound to her employer.

The North, Jacob found, was not simply a safe haven: slave hunters sought out fugitive slaves to return them to the South, and slaves and free blacks alike were subjected to Northern racism. In her narrative, she describes the discrimination and segregation that ran rampant in the "free" North. She reports riding in segregated train cars and steam boats, staying in segregated hotels, and encountering racist workplaces. After being told that black Americans could not ride in first class, the narrator compares this affront to treatment in the South: "Colored people were allowed to ride in a filthy box, behind white people, at the south, but they were not required to pay for the privilege. It made me sad to find how the North aped the customs of slavery." She also indicts the arbitrariness of racist policy in the North. For example, the narrator describes the discrimination her son suddenly faced at his workplace in Boston: "[O]ne day they accidentally discovered a fact they had never before suspected—that he was colored! This at once transformed him into a different being." The American and Irish-American co-workers find it "offensive to their dignity to have a 'nigger' among them," the narrator reports, adding, "after they had been told that he was a 'nigger.'"

Realizing that the fight was in no way over, Jacobs became involved in abolitionist activities in the North. She worked for a period in the abolitionist reading room run by her brother, and she was involved in a circle of abolitionist and feminist women. Among her friends were white abolitionist Amy Post and black abolitionist William Nell, activists who were also involved in women's rights. Jacobs decided that telling her story publicly, although she was uneasy about revealing some of the details (particularly her decision to embark upon a sexual relationship with Sawyer), could help her cause. "I would never consent to give my past life to any one for I would not do it with out giving the whole truth," Jacobs wrote in a letter to Amy Post, as she struggled with the dilemma of revealing her past to the public. She continued, "if it could help save another from my fate it would be selfish and unchristian in me to keep it back."

Post helped Jacobs contact Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of the influential antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin), sending her a summary of Jacobs' story and requesting Stowe's help in producing a dictated narrative of Jacobs' life. To Jacobs' surprise, the famous abolitionist Stowe responded very inadequately, doubting Jacobs' authenticity and offering at best to include parts of Jacobs' story in her own book. Jacobs refused Stowe's offer. Instead, she decided to write her own story, first in letters to abolitionist newspapers and then as the full narrative. It took several years for her to complete Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, because she was supporting her family by working full-time as a live-in nursemaid for the Willis family. She wrote only late at night after her work was done, hiding her efforts from her employer. Although an endorsement from Stowe or Willis would have helped Jacobs publish her book—since slave narratives generally needed authorization from a well-known white citizen—Jacobs did not approach either of these people. Instead, William Nell introduced her to white abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, who agreed to be the editor of Jacobs' book and to write the introduction that would help "validate" Jacobs to a skeptical (and often racist) white audience.

After her book was published (1861) and the Civil War began, Jacobs remained active in numerous ways. She spent the years of the war and Reconstruction helping former slaves. The year after her book was published, she went to Washington, D.C., to aid escaped slaves there. She performed relief work and wrote about the conditions of these refugees in the abolitionist newspaper the Liberator. After the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, bringing even more blacks to the North, Jacobs also worked in Alexandria, Virginia, where over a thousand former slaves were living. Her daughter, Louisa Matilda Jacobs, joined her, and they provided clothing, health care and education. Jacobs continued to confront racist assumptions, as when whites tried to take over a school that the freed slaves had established. She helped arrange for blacks to keep control of the school and for her daughter to be one of the teachers. "I do not object to white teachers," she wrote in a letter to Hannah Stevenson of the New England Freedmen's Aid Society, "but I think it has a good effect upon these people to convince them their own race can do something for their elevation. It inspires them with confidence to help each other." After the war, Jacobs visited Edenton, North Carolina, where she had spent her years in slavery. She brought relief supplies for the newly freed blacks, including clothing and seeds, and she worked to teach the women subsistence gardening. She and her daughter also did relief work in Savannah, Georgia, and they traveled to England to raise money for an orphanage and other efforts in Savannah. In 1868, the year the 14th Amendment was passed (giving black men the right to vote), Jacobs was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, running a boardinghouse.

Her son Joseph, disgusted with racism in the North, tried to make his living elsewhere, traveling to California and Australia. Jacobs learned he was sick overseas in 1863 and never heard from him again. She remained close to her daughter, with whom she worked during the war and Reconstruction years, and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1885. Jacobs died in Washington in her 80s, having spent her life not only trying to change her own circumstances, but also fighting to improve the conditions of others. Her act of writing her story, and her other forms of activism, challenged the racist and sexist assumptions of her time.

Because she wrote under a pseudonym, and because the lives of slaves are difficult to document, for over a hundred years Harriet Jacobs' name was virtually forgotten. Her narrative was republished as recently as the 1970s under the name Linda Brent, and many readers assumed that editor Lydia Maria Child was the real author. Scholar Jean Fagan Yellin has recovered extensive documentation verifying Jacobs' identity and the details of her story, publishing a highly documented version of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs' book is taught in history, literature and a range of other classes. Her narrative stands as one of the strongest indictments of the institution of slavery—both of its practitioners and those who stood by and did nothing. It is also one of the most powerful testimonies of the experiences of a woman under slavery, unswerving in its condemnation of both racism and patriarchy.


Carby, Hazel. "'Hear My Voice, Ye Careless Daughters': Narratives of Slave and Free Women before Emancipation," in Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. NY: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Davis, Angela . Women, Race and Class. NY: Vintage Books, 1983.

Deck, Alice A. "Whose Book is This?: Authorial versus Editorial Control of Harriet Brent Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself," in Women's Studies International Forum. Vol. 10, 1987, pp. 33–40.

Jacobs, Harriet Ann. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself. Edited and with an introduction by Jean Fagan Yellin. 1861. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

——. Incidents in the Life of Slave Girl, Written by Herself. Edited by Lydia Maria Child. New introduction and notes by Walter Teller. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

——. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Introduction by Valerie Smith. NY: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Sterling, Dorothy. We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. NY: W.W. Norton, 1984.

Stroud, George M. A Sketch of the Laws Relating to Slavery in the Several States of the United States of America, 1856. NY: Negro Universities Press, 1968.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Women and Sisters: The Anti-Slavery Feminists in American Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990 (chapter 4).

——. "Written by Herself: Harriet Jacobs' Slave Narrative," in American Literature. Vol. 53, no. 3, 1981, pp. 479–486.

——, and Cynthia D. Bond, comps. The Pen is Ours: A Listing of Writings by and about African-American Women before 1910 With Secondary Bibliography to the Present. NY, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

suggested reading:

Foster, Frances Smith. "Writing Across the Color Line: Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," in Written by Herself: Literary Production by African American Women, 1746–1892. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. "Sojourner Truth and Harriet Jacobs," in Women and Sisters: The Antislavery Feminists in American Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.


The letters of Harriet Jacobs to Amy Post are housed in the Post Papers at the University of Rochester.

Sharon Barnes , Ph.D. candidate, University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio

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Jacobs, Harriet A. (1813–1897)

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