Harriet Jacobs: A Closer Look

Born into slavery, Harriet Ann Jacobs wrote about her years of bondage in "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" written by herself. She and Frederick Douglas are among the few who were able to tell their own stories in writing, opening a window into the true day to day horrors of being a slave in the United States in the 19th century.
Harriet Jacobs: Origins

Harriet Jacobs was born in 1813 in Edenton, North Carolina, to slaves Daniel Jacobs and Delilah Horniblow. Her mother belonged to John Horniblow. Her father was a carpenter owned by Dr. Andrew Knox and Harriet lived with her mother and was only six years old, when Deliah died. She was sent to live with her mother’s mistress, where she learned to read and write. Her life was quite comfortable until 1825 when the mistress died and instead of giving her freedom she left her to a young niece, Mary Matilda, daughter of Dr. James Norcom.

  • Slave, Abolitionist, Author: Biography, background and resources on the life of Harriet Jacobs.
  • Resource Bank: Biography, runaway notice, letter to Ednah Dow Cheney, Cornell University's Margaret interview and more.
  • Slavery & Freedom: About Harriet Jacobs, part of Annenberg's American Passages Survey: A Literary Survey.

Life During Slavery 
When Dr. Norcom became her new master, Harriet's life changed forever. Though born into slavery, she writes, “I was born a slave; but I never knew till six years of happy childhood had passed away.” Her father died soon after Harriet went to live in the Norcom household. One bright spot and consolation in Harriet's life was some little contact with her grandmother. Life under Dr. Norcom's eye was miserable and became even worse as he began to pursue her sexually and his wife became more jealous. To escape his determined advances, she turned to a relationship with Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, whose station in life was higher than that of Dr. Norcross and thus he could offer her a measure of protection even against the slave owner. She and Sawyer had two children, a son and a daughter, who along with Harriet's brother, were finally bought and freed by their father.

Dr. Norcross continued to harass her even as she moved to her grandmother's home. He eventually sent her to his son's plantation from which she escaped, and with no place to hide, secretly moved into her grandmother's house. There she spent seven years in a crawlspace within which she was not able to stand upright. Finally, in 1842 she escaped by boat and went north. Then she made her way to New York by traveling the Underground Railroad. Even then, she was hunted by Dr. Norcom as a runaway slave. It was not until 1852 that Cornelia Willis, her employer, who was an anti-slavery sympathizer, bought and freed her.

  • Harriet A. Jacobs: Extensive biographical material accompanying Harriet Jacobs' book at UNC's Documenting the South.

Life of a Slave Girl 
While working in the Anti-Slavery Office and Reading Room, Harriet met Amy Post, the abolitionist, who encouraged her to begin writing her only book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Herself, in 1853. Finding a publisher proved to be a daunting task. It was finally published under the name, Linda Brent, in 1862. During a time when such things were not discussed or even acknowledged, the contents of her book shocked the public with its candor and detailed accounts of just what the life of a female slave could be like.

  • The Book: Online copy of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Herself.
  • Editor: Biography of Lydia Maria Child, editor for the first edition of Harriet Jacob's book.
  • Authentication: What it means to have this important book authenticated.

"Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" did not catch the attention of scholars or critics early on. For a long time, many considered the book to be no more than abolitionist propaganda. In 1981, Professor Jean Fagan Yellin, proved with her extensive documented research that Harriet Jacob was indeed the author of this slave narrative. It is now accepted to an honored place among the very few written firsthand accounts of slavery in the United States, considered especially valuable as it is from the viewpoint of the female slave experience. Harriet Jacobs did not shrink from giving her readers the unvarnished truth as she ripped back the veil from life under southern slavery. Her story has become an important part in teaching about that time in American history.

After gaining her freedom, Harriet worked for a living, but also devoted herself to changing the plight of enslaved Americans. Before the Civil War she became actively involved with the abolitionist movement. During the war she worked tirelessly for the freedmen who found themselves with no homes and no means of living. After the war as she continued to be involved with the reform movements, her main focus was on improving conditions of newly-freed slaves. She died on March 7, 1897, in Washington, D.C.