Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs, who lived from approximately 1813 to 1897, was born into slavery, and became the writer of the “first known full-length narrative by a former slave woman published in the United States” (1). She lived in slavery for about 29 years and then escaped to the North and became a freedom fighter where she joined forces with the abolitionists to end slavery. She published her monumental indictment of the institution of slavery in 1861 just a few months before the Civil War began (2).

Not only was Jacobs’s book a slave narrative, but it was key that it was a narrative that sprung from the experiences of a woman who had been enslaved. Men, even Frederick Douglass, were never subjected to the same sexual sadism and humiliations that women were. This isn’t to say that slavery wasn’t also hell on earth for men. It was just a different kind of hell for women. Jacobs operated within the same moral code of white women of the time, so she had to find a way to preserve her dignity at the same time that she wrote about her own sexual abuses (3).

Although Jacobs had a somewhat intact family of origin, when her original slave holder died, Jacobs was bequeathed to the three-year-old daughter of the original slave holder’s brother-in-law, Dr. James Norcom (4). At age 15, Jacobs became the target of Norcom’s sexually sadistic advances. He was 35 years older than she was. In order to try to avert his attention, Jacobs took up with another white man named Samuel Tredwell Sawyer. She thought perhaps Sawyer’s higher standing in the community and the fact of her being sexually involved with him would deter Norcom. Jacobs had two children by Sawyer, but Norcom still pursued Jacobs (5).

Norcom chose to inflict punishment for his refused sexual advances on the entire Jacobs family, so Jacobs ran away in 1835. “For seven years, she lived in a damp, cramped crawl space above her grandmother’s kitchen, just one block from Norcom’s home” (6). Jacobs eventually escaped to New York. Her brother and her two children were purchased from Norcom by Sawyer and Jacobs reunited with her daughter in New York. Norcom tried to recapture Jacobs several times, even coming to New York himself. Luckily, Jacobs evaded capture by moving to Boston and other locales with the help of friends and family (7).

Following her brother’s lead, Jacobs eventually got involved with the abolition movement where she began writing for abolitionist newspapers. Her brother and a friend encouraged her to write about her own life, and she eventually worked on her book from 1853 to 1857. As was the case with all narratives written by Black people at the time, Jacobs needed a white guarantor that the work was authentic, so Lydia Maria Child became Jacobs’s editor and proof of authorship (8). The book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, was successful, and Jacobs continued to write for newspapers, but her main source of income was running a boardinghouse. She died in 1897 in Washington D.C. from breast cancer (9).


“Reader be assured this narrative is no fiction. I am aware that some of my adventures may seem incredible; but they are, nevertheless, strictly true. I have not exaggerated the wrongs inflicted by Slavery; on the contrary, my descriptions fall far short of the facts. I have concealed the names of places, and given persons fictitious names. I had no motive for secrecy on my own account, but I deemed it kind and considerate towards others to pursue this course.

I wish I were more competent to the task I have undertaken. But I trust my readers will excuse deficiencies in consideration of circumstances. I was born and reared in Slavery; and I remained in a Slave State twenty-seven years. Since I have been at the North, it has been necessary for me to work diligently for my own support, and the education of my children. This has not left me much leisure to make up for the loss of early opportunities to improve myself; and it has compelled me to write these pages at irregular intervals, whenever I could snatch an hour from household duties.

When I first arrived in Philadelphia, Bishop Paine advised me to publish a sketch of my life, but I told him I was altogether incompetent to such an undertaking. Though I have improved my mind somewhat since that time, I still remain of the same opinion; but I trust my motives will excuse what might otherwise seem presumptuous. I have not written my experiences in order to attract attention to myself; on the contrary, it would have been more pleasant to me to have been silent about my own history. Neither do I care to excite sympathy for my own sufferings. But I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse. I want to add my testimony to that of abler pens to convince the people of the Free States what Slavery really is. Only by experience can any one realize how deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations. May the blessing of God rest on this imperfect effort in behalf of my persecuted people!”

Linda Brent

(1) Jacobs, Harriet. 2020. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself: With Related Documents. Edited by Jennifer Fleischner. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins. Kindle. (Loc. 195).
(2) Jacobs, (Loc. 205).
(3) Jacobs, (Loc. 246-247).
(4) Jacobs, (Loc. 292).
(5) Jacobs, (Loc. 306).
(6) Jacobs, (Loc. 306).
(7) Jacobs, (Loc. 319-330).
(8) Jacobs, (Loc. 550-578).
(9) Jacobs, (Loc. 602).

Harriet Jacobs Featured Image Credit: By Unknown author – “Harriet Jacobs” By Jean Fagan Yellin, found at Google books item provenance: [1]image: Illustration from page 265[2], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6947928