Harriet Ann Jacobs 

Born in to slavery in North Carolina, Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813-1897) had a loving family with a skilled but still enslaved father who was able to provide a home for them. Her grandmother also had a house nearby. When she was six, her mother died and she was sent to live at the house of her owner, Margaret Horniblower. She was an elderly widow who welcomed Jacobs. She taught her to read and write even though it was frowned upon to make slaves literate.  

When Horniblower died in 1825, Jacobs was willed to her three-year-old niece, Mary Matilda Norcom. (There is debate that Horniblower intended on freeing Jacobs in her will and that Jacobs was illegally re-enslaved by Dr. Norcom through false documentation.) Within two years of moving into the house, Mary Norcom’s father, Dr. James Norcom, began to sexually harass Jacobs who would have been only about 14 years old at the time. Caught between Dr. Norcom’s unwanted advances and Mrs. Norcom’s jealousy, Jacobs’ life became very difficult. Dr. Norcom refused to let her marry a free Black man who was willing to buy her freedom. At 16, Jacobs had a relationship with an unmarried white lawyer named Samuel Tredwell Sawyer. (There is debate if this was “consensual” because there is a definite power imbalance to the relationship even if Jacobs willingly chose Sawyer as a means of protecting herself from Norcom.) She had two children by Sawyer. Despite being born to a white father, the children were the property of Dr. Norcom  and he was so infuriated with Jacobs scorning his advances that he planned to send her children down to work as field slaves. Knowing that Norcom was actually angry at her and not the children, she ran away instead. Although she wrote letters to Dr. Norcom that she had escaped to the North, she didn’t run far because she did not want to leave her children. She actually hid in her grandmother’s house, in the attic, in a crawl space so small that she could not even stand up. For seven years she lived in that space which was only 9 feet long and 7 feet wide by 3 feet high. Dr. Norcom decided to sell her children and Jacobs’ brother John to different buyers in revenge but Sawyer secretly purchased the children and Harriet’s brother through fake buyers. John Jacobs gained his freedom and became a whaler. Sawyer did not emancipate the children but allowed them to live with Jacobs’ grandmother in the same house where she was hiding as a fugitive slave. She had drilled a peephole so she could see them from time to time as they played outside. The house was also only a short distance from Dr. Norcom’s house.

Sawyer got elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and moved to Washington D.C. in 1838. He married and sent the children he had with Harriet to the North but Jacobs herself was still trapped in the attic until she could find a way to escape. She was a fugitive slave deep in the South with a vengeful enemy nearby. In 1842 Jacobs was able to escape to the North and reunite with her children but still lived as a fugitive slave. After Dr. Norcom’s death in 1852, friends were able to purchase her freedom from his daughter. With the help of abolitionist and author, Lydia Maria Child, Jacobs goes on to write her autobiography in 1860.

In an allusion to the final line of Charlotte Bronte’s romantic novel “Jane Eyre” (which is “Reader, I married him.”), the final sentence of Harriet Jacobs’ book is “Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage.” 

“Incidents of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself” by Harriet A. Jacobs is available for free online (In her original writings she changed many names in order to protect family members. Scholars have since identified many of the people. Jacobs even used the pseudonym Linda Brent for herself.)

Another book (written in 1859 and rediscovered in 1981) “Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two-Story White House” by Harriet E. Wilson is also available for free online


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