Harriet Ann Jacobs
DATE OF BIRTH: 1813
PLACE OF BIRTH:
Edenton, North Carolina
Harriet's mother Delilah was the daughter of a slave named Molly Horniblow.
(Margaret Horniblow was her mistress/owner.) Her father, Daniel Jacobs,
was a carpenter and
to Andre Knox, a doctor, and was the son of Henry Jacobs, a white man.
Harriet never knew she was a slave until her mother died when she
was six years old. At that time, Harriet and her siblings
"[We] lived together in a comfortable home; and, though
we were all slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed
piece of merchandise." [Quotes are from
Harriet's autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.]
When Harriet moved in with her grandmother, her mistress Margaret
taught Harriet to read and sew, and both Margaret
and Molly gently and firmly instilled Christian virtues in Harriet.
"My mistress had taught me the precepts of God's Word .....
While I was with her, she taught
me to read and spell; and for this privilege, which so rarely falls
to the lot of a slave, I bless her memory."
Jacobs is revered for her autobiographical account, titled Incidents
in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself, which was first
published in 1861 under a pseudonym, with all of the names changed.
This writing is among the most significant of personal slave histories,
(by Frederick Douglass and Nat Turner). However,
most people believed the book was a fictional novel written by a
white author -- until its 1987 updated reprint. In the riveting book,
detailing the cruel oppression and sexual harassment by her master,
and her ultimate triumph of pride,
"When he told me that I was made for his use, made to obey his
command in every thing; that I was nothing but a slave, whose will
should surrender to his, never before had my puny arm felt half so
When Margaret Horniblow died, Harriet (now 12 years old), her grandmother
Molly and her siblings became the property of Margaret's niece. But since the
was only five years old, her father, Dr. James Norcom ("Dr.
Flint" in Incidents), became their de facto master.
And although Margaret had stated that she wanted Molly freed upon her
death, Dr. Norcom refused to do this. Molly was 50 years old.
"Dr. Flint called to tell my grandmother that he was unwilling
to wound her feelings by putting her up at auction, and that he would
prefer to dispose of her at private sale. My grandmother saw through
his hypocrisy; she understood very well that he was ashamed of the
job. ..... When the day of sale came, she took
her place among the chattels, and at the first call she sprang upon
the auction-block. Many voices called out, 'Shame! Shame! Who
is going to sell you, aunt Marthy? Don't stand there! That is no
for you.' Without saying a word, she quietly awaited her fate.
No one bid for her. At last, a feeble voice said, 'Fifty dollars.'
It came from a maiden lady, seventy years old, the sister of my grandmother's
deceased mistress. ..... The auctioneer waited for a higher bid;
... no one bid above her. ..... She gave
old servant her freedom."
About the time Harriet turned 15 years old, Dr. Norcom began relentlessly
pursuing her sexually. While he did have power
her, he was fearful of her grandmother because
community, so he never forced anything. At first he whispered
"foul words" in Harriet's ear. Then his tactics
became more overt, but Harriet refused to give in. Dr. Norcom's wife
suspicious of her husband's intentions -- and directed her rage at
"He tried his utmost to corrupt the pure principles my
grandmother had instilled. He peopled my young mind with unclean
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
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.
... But where could I turn
for protection? No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony
as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of
law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death...
"The mistress, who ought to protect the helpless victim, has
no other feelings towards her but those of jealousy and rage. Even
child, who is accustomed to wait on her mistress and her children,
will learn, before she is twelve years old, why it is that her
mistress hates such and such a one among the slaves. Perhaps the
mother is among those hated ones. She listens to violent outbreaks
of jealous passion, and cannot help understanding what is the cause.
She will become prematurely knowing in evil things. Soon she will
tremble when she hears her master's footfall. She will be compelled
that she is no longer a child. If God has bestowed beauty upon
her, it will prove her greatest curse. That which commands admiration
the white woman only hastens the degradation of the female slave.
"..... The light heart which nature had given me became heavy
with sad forebodings. The other slaves in my master's house noticed
the change. Many of them pitied me; but none dared ask the cause.
They had no need to inquire. They knew too well the guilty practices
under that roof; and they were aware that to speak of them was
an offence that never went unpunished.
"..... I would have given the world to have laid my head on
my grandmother's faithful bosom, and told her all my troubles.
But Dr. Flint swore he would kill me, if I was not as silent as
the grave. ... I was very young, and felt shamefaced about telling
her such impure things, especially as I knew her to be very strict
on such subjects."
After a time, Mrs. Norcom asked Harriet to look her in the
eye and tell the truth; Harriet did. The wife then became a sort
of protector, having Harriet sleep in an adjacent room with the Norcoms'
daughter. But jealousy reared again, and Harriet was again the focus.
"My master was, to my knowledge, the father of eleven slaves. But
did the mothers dare to tell who was the father of their children?
Did the other slaves dare to allude to it, except in whispers among
themselves? No, indeed! They knew too well the terrible consequences.
"Southern women often marry a man knowing that he is the father of
many little slaves. They do not trouble themselves about it. They regard
such children as property, as marketable as the pigs on the plantation;
and it is seldom that they do not make them aware of this by passing
them in the slave-trader's hands as soon as possible, and thus getting
them out of their sight."
During this time, Harriet repeatedly asked Dr. Norcom for permission
man. Norcom violently refused.
"I loved him with all the ardor of a young girl's first
love. But when I reflected that I was a slave, and that the laws
gave no sanction
to the marriage of such, my heart sank within me. My lover wanted
to buy me; but I knew that Dr. Flint [would never consent]. .....
[Dr. Flint told her:] 'Never let me hear that fellow's name mentioned
again. If I ever know
speaking to him, I will cowhide you both; and if I catch him lurking
about my premises, I will shoot him as soon as I would a dog. .....
"My lover was an intelligent and religious man. Even if
he could have obtained permission to marry me while I was a slave,
give him no power to protect me from my master. .....
And then, if we had children, I knew they must 'follow the condition
of the mother.' ..... He was going to Savannah
... and hard as it
was to bring my feelings to it, I earnestly entreated him not to
come back. .....
The dream of my girlhood was
over. I felt lonely and desolate."
Dr. Norcom had his own plan. Thinking Harriet's reluctance was due
to fear of his wife, he would build a cottage for Harriet four miles
from town. Harriet refused to
position in the community could not protect her in that isolated location.
"... he talked of his intention to give me a home of my own,
and to make a lady of me. ..... I vowed before my Maker that I
never enter it. I had rather toil on the plantation from dawn till
I had rather live and die in jail, than drag on, from day to day,
through such a living death. ..... What could I do? I thought and
till I became desperate, and made a plunge into the abyss.
"But, O, ye happy women, whose purity has been sheltered
from childhood, who have been free to choose the objects of your
homes are protected by law, do not judge the poor desolate slave
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;
and I should have been spared the painful task of confessing ...
I wanted to keep myself pure ... but I was struggling
and I became reckless in my despair."
Harriet had become friends with a young, caring white man
named Samuel Tredwell Sawyer ("Mr.
Sands" in Incidents), an unmarried attorney.
She hoped that by becoming sexually involved, and thus pregnant,
Dr. Norcom would angrily sell her -- and perhaps Samuel could buy her
and her child. She was 15 years old.
"[T]o be an object of interest
to a man who is not married, and who is not her master, is agreeable
to the pride and feelings of a slave, if her miserable situation
has left her any pride or sentiment. It seems less degrading
to give one's
self, than to submit to compulsion. There is something akin to
freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except that
he gains by kindness and attachment. ..... the condition
of a slave confuses all principles of morality, and, in fact, renders
the practice of them impossible.
"I shuddered to think of being the mother of children that
should be owned by my old tyrant. I knew that as soon as a new
him, his victims were sold far off to get rid of them; especially
if they had children. I had seen several women sold, with babies
at the breast. He never allowed his offspring by slaves to remain
long in sight of himself and his wife. .....
"At last, [Dr. Flint] came and told me the cottage was completed,
and ordered me to go to it. I told him I would never enter it. He
have heard enough of such talk as that. You shall go, if you are
carried by force; and you shall remain there.' I replied, 'I will
never go there. In a few months I shall be a mother.' He stood and
looked at me in dumb amazement, and left the house without a word.
I should be happy in my triumph over him.
But now that the truth was out, and my relatives would hear of it,
I felt wretched."
Although they had two children together (Joseph and Louisa
Matilda), Dr. Norcom adamently refused to sell Harriet,
or her children. (Harriet had her first child at age 16.) Harriet
lived from that time onward with her grandmother and her children.
She refused to tell Dr. Norcom who the father of her children was.
As the children grew over the years, the doctor continued to pursue
Harriet and would say, "These brats will bring me a handsome
sum of money one of these days." Once again, Samuel went to a slave trader
to have him try to buy Harriet. Dr. Norcom refused again, and later told
"'Your new paramour came to me, and offered to buy you;
but you may be assured you will not succeed. You are mine; and
shall be mine
for life. There lives no human being that can take you out of slavery.
I would have done it; but you rejected my kind offer.' .... [When her
son became scared, hugging her, Dr. Flint] hurled him across
room. I thought he was dead, and rushed towards him to take him up.
'Not yet!' exclaimed the doctor. 'Let
him lie there till he comes to.' 'Let me go! Let me go!' I screamed,
'or I will raise the whole house.' I struggled and got away; but
he clinched me again. Somebody opened the door, and he released me.
I bent over the little form, so pale and still; and when the brown
eyes at last opened, I don't know whether I was very happy.
"All the doctor's former persecutions were renewed. He
came morning, noon, and night. No jealous lover ever watched a
rival more closely
"[Later, the doctor said:] '... you desire freedom for yourself
and your children, and you can obtain it only through me. If you
what I am
and they shall be free. There must be no communication of any kind
between you and their father. I will procure a cottage, where you
and the children can live together. Your labor shall be light, such
sewing for my family. ... Let the past be forgotten. If I have
been harsh with you at
times, your wilfulness drove me to it. You know I exact obedience
from my own children, and I consider you as yet a child.' [She refused
"He replied, 'I must let you know there are two sides to my
proposition; if you reject the bright side, you will be obliged
to take the dark
one. You must either accept my offer, or you and your children shall
be sent to your young master's plantation, there to remain till your
young mistress is married; and your children shall fare like the
rest of the negro children.'"
She knew she could not trust her master. Dr. Norcom banished her
managed by his son, who was preparing it for his new wife. Harriet's
stayed to live with her grandmother, since he was ill, but her daughter
went with her. She was 21 years old; her son was five and her daughter
"I worked day and night, with wretchedness before me. When I lay down
beside my child, I felt how much easier it would be to see her die
than to see her master beat her about, as I daily saw him beat other
little ones. The spirit of the mothers was so crushed by the lash,
that they stood by, without courage to remonstrate. .....
down under the trials of her new life. Separated from me, with
no one to look after her, she wandered about, and in a few days
sick. One day, she sat under the window where I was at work, crying
that weary cry which makes a mother's heart bleed. I was obliged
to steel myself to bear it. After a while it ceased. I looked out,
she was gone. As it was near noon, I ventured to go down in search
of her. The great house was raised two feet above the ground. I
looked under it, and saw her about midway, fast asleep. I crept
drew her out. As I held her in my arms, I thought how well it would
be for her if she never waked up..."
Soon after, Harriet put her daughter on a cart heading back to town
to live with her grandmother. Shortly after the new bride arrived,
Harriet learned that her
were to be brought to the plantation to be 'broken in.'
made her decision.
With the help of her friends, Harriet escaped in
June of 1835. She first hid in the house of a friend, hoping to get the
chance to escape up North after Dr. Norcom relaxed
of her. But he did not give up. He posted reward notices --
$300 REWARD! Ran away from the subscriber, an intelligent, bright,
mulatto girl, named Harriet, 21 years of age. Five feet four inches
high. Dark eyes, and black hair inclined to curl; but it can be made
Has a decayed spot on a front tooth. She can read and write, and
in all probability will try to get to the Free States. All persons
forbidden, under penalty of law, to harbor or employ said slave.
$150 will be given to whoever takes her in the state, and $300 if
out of the state and delivered to me, or lodged in jail.
"The search for me was kept up with more perseverance than
I had anticipated. I began to think that escape was impossible.
advised me to return to my master, ask his forgiveness, and let him
make an example of me. [But] I had resolved
what would, there should be no turning back."
A sympathetic white woman, a lifelong friend of Harriet's grandmother,
came along to volunteer hiding space in her house for a time. From
her secret room window, she could see Dr. Norcom walking below on
"Thus far I had outwitted him, and I triumphed over it. Who can blame
slaves for being cunning? They are constantly compelled to resort to
it. It is the only weapon of the weak and oppressed against the strength
of their tyrants.
"I was daily hoping to hear that my master had sold my
children... But Dr. Flint cared even more for revenge than he did
My brother William and the good
aunt who had served in his family twenty years, and my little Benny,
and Ellen, who was a little over two years old, were thrust into
jail [to compel] my relatives [to talk]. He swore my grandmother
should never see one of them again till I was brought back. They
from me ...
"[My daughter was sick and taken to the doctor's house.] Poor
little Ellen cried all day to be carried back to prison. ... She
was loved in the jail. Her screams and sobs annoyed Mrs. Flint, [who]
Bill, carry this brat back to the jail. I can't stand her noise.
If she would be quiet I should like to keep the
little minx. She would make a handy waiting-maid for my daughter
by and by. But if she staid here, with her white face, I suppose
I should either kill her or spoil her. I hope the doctor will sell
them as far as wind and water can carry them. As for their mother,
her ladyship will find out yet what she gets by running away. She
hasn't so much feeling for her children as a cow has for its calf.
If she had, she would have come back long ago, to get them out of
jail, and save all this expense and trouble. The good-for-nothing
hussy! When she is caught, she shall stay in jail, in irons, for
one six months, and then be sold to a sugar plantation. I shall see
her broke in yet. ...'"
Dr. Norcom became convinced Harriet was in New York and set off to
find her, spending considerable money. Her children and brother had
been in jail for two months now, costing him more money. Samuel
had a slave trader offer Dr. Norcom $900 for her brother and $800 for
the children -- very high prices -- but the doctor refused. Yet he
needed the money, so he changed his mind, selling the three for $1900,
requesting that they be sold out of the state. Instead, they went to
live at the grandmother's house.
Dr. Norcom was incensed and threw Harriet's uncle into jail on
charges of aiding her escape. Plus, he renewed his pursuit of her,
even searching the white woman's house she was hiding in. She
moved into a tiny crawlspace her uncle built above a porch/shed on
her grandmother's house.
This space was only
seven feet wide, with a sloping roof that was only three feet high
end. She couldn't even turn while laying down without hitting
her shoulder. The space had no light, heat or ventilation, and rats
crawled over her. She lived in this crawlspace for seven years,
coming out only briefly and rarely at night for exercise.
After drilling a small peephole, Harriet
could watch her children play outside -- but she could never risk any
contact with them.
Harriet managed to have letters
mailed from up North so Dr. Norcom would think she was living up there.
And, every now and then, Dr. Norcom would take a trip North in pursuit
of her. Samuel was elected to Congress and took Harriet's brother
with him, but he escaped while on a trip North. In addition, Samuel
married. Harriet worried about her children, who were
Mrs. Norcom informed the new Mrs. Sawyer who was the father of Harriet's
children. Samuel told his new bride
the children were motherless; she wanted to see them.
"Mrs. Sands had a sister
from Illinois staying with her. This lady, who had no children
of her own, was so much pleased with Ellen, that she offered
to adopt her, and bring her up as she would a daughter. Mrs.
Sands wanted to take Benjamin. When grandmother reported
this to me, I was tried almost beyond endurance. Was this
all I was to gain by what I had suffered for the sake of
having my children free?"
Harriet had her grandmother talk to Samuel, reminding him she
was still alive and wanted him to redeem his pledge of emancipating
the children. Surprised, he said, "The children are free.
I have never intended to claim them as slaves. Linda [Harriet] may
decide their fate.
opinion, they had better be sent to the north. I don't think they are
quite safe here. Dr. Flint boasts that they are still in his power.
He says they were his daughter's property, and as she was not of age
when they were sold, the contract is not legally binding."
It was decided that her daughter would be sent to live with Samuel's cousin
in Brooklyn, New York.
In 1842, Harriet was offered the chance to escape North via a merchant
walk down to the harbor -- a nearly impossible task for Harriet, whose
limbs were atrophied from seven years in the cramped hiding space.
The captain hid the two women
in a tiny cabin. They sailed to Philadelphia, stayed with
some Quakers for a short while, then travelled to New York City
train. Despite the apparent freedom of blacks in the North, Harriet
"This was the first chill to my enthusiasm about the Free
States. Colored people were allowed to ride in a filthy box, behind
people, at the south, but there they were not required to pay for
It made me sad to find how the north aped the customs of slavery."
Harriet was reunited
with her daughter soon after, but the situation did not appear as beneficial
as she had been led to believe it would be:
"She had changed a good deal in the two years since I parted
from her. Signs of neglect could be discerned ..... When I asked
if she was well treated, she answered yes; but there was no heartiness
in the tone ..... [She] was now nine years old, and she scarcely
knew her letters. ..... [The family] all agreed in saying that
Ellen was a useful, good girl. Mrs. Hobbs
looked me coolly in the face, and said, 'I suppose you know that
my cousin, Mr. Sands, has given her to my eldest daughter. She
will make a nice waiting-maid for her when she grows up.' ..... "
Harriet found employment as a nursemaid for an English couple, Mr.
and Mrs. Willis. She did not tell her employer she was fugitive slave.
"I was far from feeling satisfied with Ellen's situation.
She was not well cared for. She sometimes came to New York to visit
she generally brought a request from Mrs. Hobbs that I would buy
her a pair of shoes, or some article of clothing. This was accompanied
by a promise of payment ... but some how or other the pay-day never
came. [I feared]
their pecuniary embarrassments might induce them to sell my precious
Harriet was reacquainted with her brother. She had previously tried
contacting him through letters but was informed he was sailing on a
ship for several months. She received a letter purportedly from Dr. Flint's
son, in reply to her letter to his sister (her legal owner) requesting
consent to sell Harriet.
"..... It is difficult for you to return home as a free
person. If you were purchased by your grandmother, it is doubtful
would be permitted to remain, although it would be lawful for you
to do so. If a servant should be allowed to purchase herself, after
herself so long from her owners, and return free, it would have an
injurious effect. From your letter, I think your situation must be
hard and uncomfortable. Come home. You have it in your power to be
reinstated in our affections. We would receive you with open arms
and tears of joy. You need not apprehend any unkind treatment, as
not put ourselves to any trouble or expense to get you. ... [Actually,
Harriet knew firsthand of Dr. Norcom's three trips to New York searching
"You know my sister was
attached to you, and that you were never treated as a slave. You
were never put to hard work, nor exposed to field labor. On the
contrary, you were taken into the house, and treated as one of
us, and almost
as free; and we, at least, felt that you were above disgracing
yourself by running away. Believing you may be induced to come
has induced me to write for my sister. The family will be rejoiced
to see you; and your poor old grandmother expressed a great desire
to have you come, when she heard your letter read. In her old age
needs the consolation of having her children round her. .....
you are contented to stay away from your old grandmother, your
and the friends who love you, stay where you are. We shall never
ourselves to apprehend you. But should you prefer to come home,
we will do all that we can to make you happy. If you do not wish
remain in the family, I know that father, by our persuasion,
will be induced
to let you be purchased by any person you may choose in our community.
You will please answer this as soon as possible, and let us know
your decision. Sister sends much love to you. In the mean time
your sincere friend and well wisher."
Harriet knew it was not the handwriting or prose of young master Norcom.
"I knew, ... though the writing was disguised, I had been
made too unhappy
it, in former years, not to recognize at once the hand of Dr. Flint." Harriet
had her grandmother send her son via a ship directly to New York, but
then she received a letter from a friend that Dr. Norcom
was on his way north again to find her. She went to stay with her brother
in Boston and wrote her grandmother to send her
"Early one morning, there was a loud rap at my door, and in rushed
Benjamin, all out of breath. 'O mother!' he exclaimed, 'here
I am! I run all the way; and I come all alone. How d'you do?'
"O reader, can you imagine my joy? No, you cannot, unless you have
been a slave mother. Benjamin rattled away as fast as his tongue could
go. 'Mother, why don't you bring Ellen here? I went over to Brooklyn
to see her, and she felt very bad when I bid her good by. She said,
'O Ben, I wish I was going too.' I thought she'd know ever so much;
but she don't know so much as I do; for I can read, and she can't.
And, mother, I lost all my clothes coming. What can I do to get some
more? I 'spose free boys can get along here at the north as well as
"I did not like to tell the sanguine, happy little fellow how much
he was mistaken."
Harriet left her son with her brother, after
knowing Dr. Norcom was back home. She returned to
her nursemaid duties, and a summer vacation with her employers
opened Harriet's eyes to more rascism.
"When the tea bell rang, I took little Mary and followed the other
nurses. ... A young man... finally pointed me to a seat at the lower
end of [the table]. As there was but one chair, I sat down and took
the child in my lap. Whereupon
young man came to me and said, in the blandest manner possible, 'Will
you please to seat the little girl in the chair, and stand behind
it and feed her? After they have done, you will be shown to the kitchen,
where you will have a good supper.'
"This was the climax! I found it hard to preserve my self-control,
when I looked round, and saw women who were nurses, as I was, and
only one shade lighter in complexion, eyeing me with a defiant look,
if my presence were a contamination. However, I said nothing. I quietly
took the child in my arms, went to our room, and refused to go to
the table again. Mr. Bruce ordered meals to be sent to the room for
Mary and I. This answered for a few days; but the waiters of the
establishment were white, and they soon began to complain, saying
they were not hired
to wait on negroes. The landlord requested Mr. Bruce to send me down
to my meals, because his servants rebelled against bringing them
up, and the colored servants of other boarders were dissatisfied
all were not treated alike.
"My answer was that the colored servants ought to be dissatisfied
with themselves, for not having too much self-respect to submit to
treatment; that there was no difference in the price of board for
colored and white servants, and there was no justification for difference
treatment. I staid a month after this, and finding I was resolved
to stand up for my rights, they concluded to treat me well. Let every
colored man and woman do this, and eventually we shall cease to be
trampled under foot by our oppressors."
Then Harriet found out the
brother of the woman Harriet's daughter lived with had apparently written
to Dr. Norcom, saying Harriet could be taken quite easily and there
were enough witnesses who could vouch for her being his property. Harriet
finally admitted she was a fugitive slave, and her employer enlisted
a judge and a lawyer, who advised Harriet to vacate
the city immediately. She went to her brother again, this time taking
her daughter with her.
"She was mine by birth, and she was also mine by Southern
law ... I did not feel that she was safe unless I had her with
me. Mrs. Hobbs, who felt badly
about her brother's treachery, yielded to my entreaties ...
She came to me clad in very thin garments, all outgrown ... It
was late in October ...
"The day after my arrival [in Boston] was one of the happiest of
my life. I felt as if I was beyond the reach of the bloodhounds;
first time during many years, I had both my children together with
me. They greatly enjoyed their reunion, and laughed and chatted merrily.
I watched them with a swelling heart. Their every motion delighted
"I could not feel safe in New York, and I accepted the
offer of a friend, [sharing a house].
represented to Mrs. Hobbs that Ellen must have some schooling, and
must remain with me for that purpose. She felt ashamed of being unable
to read or spell at her age, so ... I instructed her myself till
she was fitted to enter an intermediate school."
In the spring of 1845, Harriet learned that her beloved former employer
died and Mr. Willis wanted to visit relatives in England.
He wanted Harriet to come and care for his daughter. Harriet
placed her son in a trade, left her daughter at home with the friend
to attend school, and then realized the true meaning of freedom.
"For the first time in my life I was in a place where I was
treated according to my deportment, without reference to my complexion.
as if a great millstone had been lifted from my breast. Ensconced
in a pleasant room, with my dear little charge, I laid my head
on my pillow,
for the first time, with the delightful consciousness of pure, unadulterated
"I remained abroad ten months, which was much longer than I
had anticipated. During all that time, I never saw the slightest
of prejudice against color. Indeed, I entirely forgot it, till
the time came for us to return to America."
Upon returning home, Harriet found her daughter well, but her son
was gone. For several months, everyhing had gone well in his apprenticeship.
He was well-liked by the master tradesman and his fellow apprentices.
"...but one day they accidentally discovered a fact they had
never before suspected--that he was colored! This at once transformed
him into a different being. Some of
the apprentices were Americans, others American-born Irish; and
offensive to their dignity to have a 'nigger' among them,
after they had been told that he was a 'nigger.' They
began by treating him with silent scorn, and finding that he returned
same, they resorted to insults and abuse. He was too spirited a boy
to stand that, and he went off. Being desirous to do something to
support himself, and having no one to advise him, he shipped for
voyage. When I received these tidings I shed many tears, and bitterly
reproached myself for having left him so long."
Harriet received a letter from Dr. Norcom's daughter, now married:
"I am very anxious that you should come and live with me.
If you are not willing to come, you may purchase yourself; but I should
having you live with me." Harriet did not respond, but knew
her former owners were apprised of her movements, knowing she'd been
to Europe. Her brother offered to send Louisa to boarding school. Then
he decided to go to California, and they agreed that Joseph would
go with him. Alone again, Harriet looked for employment again.
She called on Mr. Willis to see the daughter and found he
had remarried, with a new little baby. He asked Harriet to return as
nursemaid. Her only hesitation was passage of the new Fugitive Slave
"About the time that I reentered the Bruce family, an event
occurred of disastrous import to the colored people. The slave
first fugitive that came under the new law, was given up by the bloodhounds
of the north to the bloodhounds of the south. It was the beginning
of a reign of terror to the colored population. .....
"I seldom ventured into the streets ... What
disgrace to a city
calling itself free, that inhabitants, guiltless of offence, and
seeking to perform their duties conscientiously, should be condemned
in such incessant fear, and have nowhere to turn for protection!
This state of things, of course, gave rise to many impromptu vigilance
Then Harriet learned that Dr. Norcom was again trying to pursue her,
having learned that she was back with her former employer.
"... I learned afterwards that my dress, and that of Mrs.
children, had been described to him by some of the Northern tools,
which slaveholders employ for their base purposes, and then indulge
in sneers at their cupidity and mean servility.
"I immediately informed Mrs. Bruce of my danger, and she
took prompt measures for my safety. My place as nurse could not
and this generous, sympathizing lady proposed that I should carry
her baby away. It was a comfort to me to have the child with me;
heart is reluctant to be torn away from every object it loves. But
how few mothers would have consented to have one of their own babes
become a fugitive..... When
of the sacrifice ... she replied, 'It is better for you to have
baby with you, Linda; for if they get on your track, they will be
obliged to bring
to me; and then, if there is a possibility of saving you, you shall
be saved.' "
Harriet's employer, Cornelia Grinnell Willis, spirited her and the
baby away to a friend's house
in the country. They stayed there a month, until they were certain
Dr. Norcom was back home. Some months later, Harriet received
a letter from her grandmother that the doctor had died.
"I remembered how he had defrauded my grandmother of the hard earnings
she had loaned; how he had tried to cheat her out of the freedom her
mistress had promised her, and how he had persecuted her children;
and I thought to myself that she was a better Christian than I was,
if she could entirely forgive him. I cannot say, with truth, that the
news of my old master's death softened my feelings towards him. There
are wrongs which even the grave does not bury. The man was odious to
me while he lived, and his memory is odious now."
But even with his death, Harriet was not safe. Legally, she was still
the property of Dr. Norcom's daughter, who was now married and of age.
"I was well aware what I had to expect from the family of Flints; and
my fears were confirmed by a letter from the south, warning me to be
on my guard, because Mrs. Flint openly declared that her daughter could
not afford to lose so valuable a slave as I was."
Harriet checked the newspaper daily for the list of new arrivals.
One night she forgot and, instead, checked in the morning.
"Reader, if you have never been a slave, you cannot imagine
the acute sensation of suffering at my heart, when I read the names
Mrs. Dodge, at a hotel in Courtland Street. It was a third-rate
hotel, and that circumstance convinced me of the truth of what I
that they were short of funds and had need of my value, as they
valued me; and that was by dollars and cents. ...
"It was impossible
how near the enemy was. He might have passed and repassed the
house while we were sleeping. He might at that moment be waiting
upon me if I ventured out of doors. I had never seen the husband
of my young mistress, and therefore I could not distinguish him
Cornelia secreted Harriet away again. Sure enough, visitors came to
the house to inquire about Harriet and her daughter.
"Mrs. Bruce came to me and entreated me to leave the city the next
morning. She said her house was watched, and it was possible that
some clew [clue] to me might be obtained. I refused to take her advice.
... I was weary of flying from
pillar to post. I had been chased during half my life, and it seemed
as if the chase was never to end. .....
"I had been told that Mr. Dodge said his wife had never signed
away her right to my children, and if he could not get me, he would
them. This it was, more than any thing else, that roused such a tempest
in my soul. Benjamin was with his uncle William in California, but
my innocent young daughter had come to spend a vacation with me.
I thought of what I had suffered in slavery at her age, and my
was like a tiger's when a hunter tries to seize her young."
Harriet and Louisa set off through a snow storm for New England
again. There, Harriet received letters, under an assumed name, from
Cornelia that her purported owners were still trying to find her. Cornelia
said she was going to end the persecution
and buy Harriet's freedom.
"I felt grateful for the kindness that prompted this offer, but the
idea was not so pleasant to me as might have been expected. The more
my mind had become enlightened, the more difficult it was for me to
consider myself an article of property; and to pay money to those who
had so grievously oppressed me seemed like taking from my sufferings
the glory of triumph. I wrote to Mrs. Bruce, thanking her, but saying
that being sold from one owner to another seemed too much like slavery;
that such a great obligation could not be easily cancelled; and that
I preferred to go to my brother in California.
"Without my knowledge, Mrs. Bruce employed a gentleman in New York
to enter into negotiations with Mr. Dodge. He proposed to pay three
hundred dollars down, if Mr. Dodge would sell me, and enter into obligations
to relinquish all claim to me or my children forever after. He who
called himself my master said he scorned so small an offer for such
a valuable servant. The gentleman replied, 'You can do as you
choose, sir. If you reject this offer you will never get any thing;
for the woman has friends who will convey her and her children out
of the country.'
"Mr. Dodge concluded that 'half a loaf was better than
no bread,' and
he agreed to the proffered terms. ....
"My brain reeled ... So I was sold at last! A human being
sold in the free city of New York! The bill of sale is on record,
generations will learn from it that women were articles of traffic
in New York, late in the nineteenth century of the Christian religion.
... I do not like to look upon it. I am deeply grateful to the generous
who procured it, but I despise the miscreant who demanded payment
for what never rightfully belonged to him or his.
"I had objected to having my freedom bought, yet I must confess
that when it was done I felt as if a heavy load had been lifted from
weary shoulders. When I rode home in the cars I was no longer afraid
to unveil my face and look at people as they passed. I should have
been glad to have met Daniel Dodge himself; to have had him seen
me and known me, that he might have mourned over the untoward circumstances
which compelled him to sell me for three hundred dollars."
Harriet was finally free -- in 1852.
At some point while in New York,
maybe during the times recounted in her autobiography, Harriet
with abolitionists through
Frederick Douglass' paper, The North Star. Over time, friends
convinced Harriet to write her autobiography. She considered
it for some
time before beginning it, and she changed
not only her name (using a pseudonym to publish under) but also the
names of everyone else. (Some sources believe she began writing this
secretly while working for Mr. and Mrs. Willis, before they knew she
was a fugitive slave.)
Some parts of her book were published by Horace
Greeley in his newspaper, the New York Tribune, and her
accounts of the sexual harassment and abuse of herself and other
shocked the American public. In 1858, Harriet finished her book and
traveled to England to try to get it published. She found it difficult
to get published both there and in the U.S.
In 1860, Thayer & Eldridge publishers planned to print it,
and even made stereotype plates, but the firm went bankrupt before
it was finished. Harriet tried for years to find another publisher,
getting the book printed in 1861. Most people reading it thought
it a work
of fiction by a white writer. And, although she never referenced
experiences graphically, her book was the first open discussion
about the secret sexual aspect of slavery. Lydia Maria Child, editor
of the book, defended the inclusion of the material in her preface:
"This peculiar phase of slavery has generally been kept veiled; but
the public ought to be made acquainted with its monstrous features,
and I willingly take the responsibility of presenting them with the
veil withdrawn. I do this for the sake of my sisters in bondage, who
are suffering wrongs so foul, that our ears are too delicate to listen
Harriet's autobiography also upset people by her highlighting the
role the Christian church played in maintaining slavery:
"After the alarm caused by Nat Turner's insurrection had subsided,
the slaveholders came to the conclusion that it would be well to give
the slaves enough of religious instruction to keep them from murdering
their masters. The Episcopal clergyman offered to hold a separate service
on Sundays for their benefit.
"When the Rev. Mr. Pike came ... he gave out the portions
he wished them to repeat or respond to. His text was, 'Servants,
to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and
trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ. ..... Give
strict heed unto my words. You are rebellious sinners. Your hearts
are filled with all manner of evil. 'Tis the devil who tempts you.
God is angry with you, and will surely punish you, if you don't forsake
your wicked ways. ..... If you disobey your earthly
master, you offend your heavenly Master. .....'
"A clergyman who goes to the south, for the first time,
has usually some feeling, however vague, that slavery is wrong.
suspects this, and plays his game accordingly. He makes himself as
agreeable as possible; talks on theology, and other kindred topics.
The southerner invites him to talk with these slaves. He asks them
if they want to be free, and they say, 'O, no, massa.' This is sufficient
to satisfy him. He comes home ... to complain of the exaggerations
of abolitionists. He ... [has] seen slavery for himself; that it is
a beautiful 'patriarchal institution;' that the slaves don't want
"What does he know of the half-starved wretches toiling from
dawn till dusk on the plantations? of mothers shrieking for their
torn from their arms by slave traders? of young girls dragged down
into moral filth? of pools of blood around the whipping post? of
hounds trained to tear human flesh? of men screwed into cotton
gins to die?
The slaveholder showed him none of these things, and the slaves dared
not tell of them if he had asked them."
In 1863, Harriet and Louisa moved to Alexandria, Virginia, and were
active in the abolition movement before the Civil War. During
it, they raised
refugees. Harriet also established The Jacobs Free School in Alexandria,
providing black teachers for the refugees. In 1865, after the war,
they moved to Savannah, Georgia, continuing their relief work. After
the war, and short stops to Cambridge and England, they moved to Washington,
D.C. in 1877 and worked on civil rights efforts, trying to improve
the conditions of recently
Harriet also helped establish the National Association of Colored Women.
Harriet died on March 7, 1897, at the age of 84. She is buried in
Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
DATE OF DEATH: March
PLACE OF DEATH: Washington,
Lyons, Mary E. Letters From a Slave girl: the Story
of Harriet Jacobs. New York: Scribner's, 1992.
Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a
Slave Girl: Written by Herself. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1987.
in the Life of a Slave Girl - American Studies at the University
of Virginia (hypertext edition with contextual material)
in the Life of a Slave Girl - Scribbling Women (biography, synopsis,
Jacobs - Spartacus Educational (brief profile and excerpts of
Ann Jacobs: Writer and Activist, 1813 - 1897
- Africans in America
Jacobs - Voices from the Gaps, Women Writers of
"... it would have been more pleasant
to me to have been silent about my own history ... 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 anyone realize how deep, and dark, and foul that pit of
abominations. May the blessings of God rest upon this imperfect
effort on behalf of my persecuted people."
-- Harriet Jacobs
page may be cited as:
Women in History. Harriet Jacobs biography.
Lakewood Public Library. Date accessed