Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897)

November 22, 2011

Born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina on February 12, 1813, Harriet Jacobs went on to become an author and abolitionist.

Jacobs’s father, a skilled carpenter, was able to hire himself out for work, and she and her brother lived in a house with both of their enslaved parents. Because of this unusual situation, Jacobs was unaware of her status as a slave in the early years of her life. At six years old, following her mother’s death, she was sent to live with her owner, Margaret Horniblow, and only then realized her status as a slave.

It was against the law to teach a slave to read or write, however Horniblow felt sympathy towards Jacobs and taught her to read, write, and sew. When Horniblow died in 1825, the conditions of her will stipulated that Jacobs be left to her three year-old niece. Jacobs found herself at the mercy of the girl’s parents, Dr. James and Mrs. Mary Norcom.

While Margaret treated Jacobs with warmth and respect, the Norcoms had little regard for Jacobs’s personal comfort. Dr. Norcom made aggressive overtures towards Jacobs, determined to force her into a sexual relationship. As a sign of protest and refusal, she began an affair with Samuel T. Sawyer, another white man. Though she bore Sawyer two children, Dr. Norcom persisted in his threats, focusing his efforts on her children. In 1835 she ran away to the house of her grandmother, a freed slave. For the next seven years Jacobs hid in a tiny space in her grandmother’s house, barely able to move, spending her time reading and sewing.

In 1842 Jacobs received passage to Philadelphia and then spent the next several years working in Boston and New York while she tried to free her children, Louisa and Benjamin. They had been brought north, but were still under the threat of repossession. Jacobs split her time between working for the family of Nathaniel Parker Willis (Lot 972, Spruce Avenue) in New York and working on behalf of the anti-slavery movement with her brother, John, in Rochester. After ten years of living as a fugitive in the north, Jacobs’s freedom, along with that of her children, was purchased by the Willis family.

At the encouragement of her friend, abolitionist Amy Post, Jacobs published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1861, just two months before the start of the Civil War. At the time of its publication, Incidents was thought to be a work of fiction written by white abolitionists, but following the war Jacobs came forward as the books author. Incidents is now not only an important primary resource in the study of the institution of slavery but also considered an early work of feminist literature.

During and immediately following the war, Jacobs and her daughter provided relief aid to freedmen and established schools and orphanages throughout the South. She moved to Cambridge in 1872 and ran a boarding house on Trowbridge Street before moving to the corner of Story Street and Mount Auburn Street, where she lived for three years. Her brother died in 1873 and was buried at Mount Auburn, and though Jacobs and Louisa eventually moved to Washington, D.C., both were later buried at Mount Auburn.

Harriet Jacobs grave

Harriet Jacobs is buried at Mount Auburn in Lot 4389 on Clethra Path.

Adapted from the research of Cathy Breitkreutz, as published in Mount Auburn’s Person of the Week: Harriet Jacobs, 2000.

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