Biography of Harriet Jacobs, Writer and Abolitionist

Author of 'Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl'

Harriet Jacobs historical marker.

Jed Record / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Harriet Jacobs (February 11, 1813-March 7, 1897), who was born into slavery, endured sexual abuse for years before successfully escaping to the North. She later wrote about her experiences in the 1861 book "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," one of the few slave narratives written by a black woman. Jacobs later became an abolitionist speaker, educator, and social worker.

Fast Facts: Harriet Jacobs

  • Known For: Escaped slavery and wrote "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" (1861), the first female fugitive slave narrative in the U.S.
  • Born: February 11, 1813, in Edenton, North Carolina
  • Died: March 7, 1897, in Washington, D.C.
  • Parents: Elijah Knox and Delilah Horniblow
  • Children: Louisa Matilda Jacobs, Joseph Jacobs
  • Notable Quote: ''I am well aware that many will accuse me of indecorum for presenting these pages to the public, but the public ought to be made acquainted with [slavery’s] monstrous features, and I willingly take the responsibility of presenting them with the veil withdrawn.”

Early Years: Life in Slavery

Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1813. Her father, Elijah Knox, was an enslaved biracial house carpenter owned by Andrew Knox. Her mother, Delilah Horniblow, was an enslaved black woman owned by a local tavern owner. Due to laws at the time, a mother’s status as “free” or “enslaved” was passed onto their children. Therefore, both Harriet and her brother John were enslaved at birth.

After her mother’s death, Harriet lived with her mother’s mistress, Margaret Horniblow, who taught her to sew, read, and write. Harriet had hopes of being freed after Horniblow’s death. Instead, she was sent to live with the family of Dr. James Norcom.

She was barely a teenager before her new owner, Norcom, sexually harassed her and threatened to make her his concubine. She endured psychological and sexual abuse for years. After Norcom forbid Jacobs from marrying a free black carpenter, she entered into a consensual relationship with a white neighbor, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, with whom she had two children (Joseph and Louise Matilda).

“I knew what I did," Jacobs later wrote about her relationship with Sawyer, "and I did it with deliberate calculation…There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you.” She had hoped that her relationship with Sawyer would offer her some protection.

Escaping Slavery

When Norcom found out about Jacobs’ relationship with Sawyer, he became violent towards her. Because Norcom still owned Jacobs, her children became his property. He threatened to sell her children and raise them as plantation slaves if she refused his sexual advances.

If Jacobs fled, the children would remain with their grandmother, living in better conditions. Partly to protect her children from Norcom, Jacobs plotted her escape. She later wrote, “Whatever slavery might do to me, it could not shackle my children. If I fell a sacrifice, my little ones were saved.”

For nearly seven years, Jacobs hid in her grandmother’s gloomy attic, a small room that was only nine feet long, seven feet wide, and three feet tall. From that tiny crawl space, she secretly watched her children grow up through a small crack in the wall.

Norcom posted a runaway notice for Jacobs, offering a $100 reward for her capture. In the posting, Norcom ironically stated that "this girl absconded from the plantation of my son without any known cause or provocation."

In June 1842, a boat captain smuggled Jacobs north to Philadelphia for a price. She then moved on to New York, where she worked as a nurse for the writer Nathaniel Parker Willis. Later, Willis' second wife paid Norcom's son-in-law $300 for Jacobs' freedom. Sawyer purchased their two children from Norcom, but refused to set them free. Unable to reunite with her children, Jacobs reconnected with her brother John, also a fugitive slave, in New York. Harriet and John Jacobs became part of New York's abolitionist movement. They met Frederick Douglass.

'Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl'

An abolitionist named Amy Post urged Jacobs to tell her life story to help those still in bondage, particularly women. Though Jacobs had learned to read during her enslavement, she had never mastered writing. She began to teach herself how to write, publishing several anonymous letters to the "New York Tribune," with Amy Post’s help.

Jacobs eventually finished the manuscript, titled "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." The publication made Jacobs the first woman to author a fugitive slave narrative in the U.S. Prominent white abolitionist Lydia Maria Child helped Jacobs edit and publish her book in 1861. However, Child asserted that she did little to change the text, saying “I don't think I altered 50 words in the whole volume." Jacobs’ autobiography was “written by herself,” as the subtitle to her book states.

The subject matter of the text, including sexual abuse and harassment of enslaved women, was controversial and taboo at the time. Some of her published letters in the "New York Tribune" shocked readers. Jacobs wrestled with the difficulty of exposing her past, later deciding to publish the book under a pseudonym (Linda Brent) and giving fictitious names to people in the narrative. Her story became one of the first open discussions about sexual harassment and abuse endured by slave women.

Later Years

After the Civil War, Jacobs reunited with her children. In her later years, she devoted her life to distributing relief supplies, teaching, and providing health care as a social worker. She eventually returned to her childhood home in Edenton, North Carolina, to help support the recently freed slaves of her hometown. She died in 1897 in Washington, D.C., and was buried next to her brother John in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Legacy

Jacobs’ book, "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," made an impact in the abolitionist community at the time. However, it was forgotten by history in the wake of the Civil War. The scholar Jean Fagan Yellin later rediscovered the book. Struck by the fact that it had been written by a formerly enslaved woman, Yellin championed Jacobs' work. The book was reprinted in 1973.

Today, Jacobs’ story is commonly taught in schools alongside other influential slave narratives, including "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave" and "Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom," by William and Ellen Craft. Together, these narratives not only vividly portray the evils of slavery, but also display the courage and resilience of enslaved men and women.

Anthony Nittle contributed to this article. He teaches high school English for the Los Angeles Unified School District and has a master's degree in education from California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Sources

“About Harriet Jacobs Biography.” Historic Edenton State Historic Site, Edenton, NC.

Andrews, William L. “Harriet A. Jacobs (Harriet Ann), 1813-1897.” Documenting the American South, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2019.

“Harriet Jacobs.” PBS Online, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 2019.

"Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl." Africans in America, PBS Online, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 1861.

Jacobs, Harriet A. "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself." Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Reynolds, David S. “To Be a Slave.” The New York Times, July 11, 2004.

"Runaway notice for Harriet Jacobs." PBS Online, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 1835.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. "The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers." The University of North Carolina Press, November 2008, Chapel Hill, NC.