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Incidents in the Life of an Abolitionist

The Harriet Jacobs Papers Project

By Paulette W. Campbell | HUMANITIES, January/February 2004 | Volume 25, Number 1

When Harriet Jacobs learned that President Lincoln was going to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, she wrote a friend: "Life has just begun, and I pray to God to spare all the dear good people. . . that have labored so faithfully to see the fruit of their labor gathered in."

The letter is one of six hundred documents by and about Harriet Jacobs, a fugitive slave who became an author and abolitionist. A two-volume edition of the material will appear in print this year as part of the Harriet Jacobs Papers Project.

"Millions of women were held in slavery, but Harriet is the only one we have papers for," says Jean Fagan Yellin, a professor of English at Pace University. According to Yellin, this will be the first scholarly edition of papers of a black woman held in slavery. "Sojourner Truth was illiterate and Harriet Tubman was illiterate. Literacy among blacks was against the law back then. So Harriet Jacobs's voice becomes the only voice we have for those millions, and it's such an extraordinary voice." The story is one that Yellin first disbelieved: Jacobs tells a sensational story of being exploited by a male slave owner, of taking an unmarried white attorney as a lover to fend off her owner, then running away and hiding in an attic in the town for seven years before making her escape to New York.

Harriet Jacobs was born in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1813. She learned from her mistress to read and write, an activity that became illegal in North Carolina in 1830.

She became the author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (Boston 1861, London 1862). According to Incidents, as a child she remained unaware of being a slave "till six years of happy childhood had passed away." The family, which included a brother, lived in a home behind the tavern owned by their mistress, Elizabeth Horniblow. Harriet's father, of mixed parentage like her mother, was a carpenter and was allowed to hire himself out. Life was comfortable.

That changed, she writes, when her mistress died and new master, Dr. James Norcom, began pursuing her for sexual favors. To escape his attentions, she encouraged a relationship with a lawyer in town and had two children by him. In Incidents she describes the situation:

It chanced that a white unmarried gentleman had obtained some knowledge of the circumstances in which I was placed. He knew my grandmother and often spoke to me in the street. He became interested in me, and asked questions about my master, which I answered in part. He expressed a great deal of sympathy, and a wish to aid me. He constantly sought opportunities to see me, and wrote to me frequently. I was a poor slave girl, only fifteen years old.

Jacobs acknowledged the tale would shock audiences, but attempted to justify her actions.

There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except that which he gains by kindness and attachment. There may be some sophistry in all this; but the condition of a slave confuses all principles of morality, and, in fact, renders the practice of them impossible.

With her owner continuing to create difficulties, Jacobs attempted to escape, but pursuit came quickly. "Before ten o'clock, every vessel northward bound was thoroughly examined," Jacobs writes, "and the law against harboring fugitives was read to all on board. At night a watch was set over the town." She was unable to get out of Edenton, so--leaving her children behind--she hid in the attic of her grandmother's house for seven years. In 1842, she made her escape to New York and her children followed her later. She worked as a nanny and seamstress, all the while being hunted by Norcom. After his death, the pursuit was continued by his daughter and son-in-law, who had inherited ownership of her. She remained a fugitive until she was forty, when she was purchased and freed by Cornelia Grinnell Willis. Jacobs had been the nanny for Willis's child.

"I dismissed it as a false narrative, but I didn't forget it," writes Yellin, who has written a biography of Jacobs. Yellin changed her mind when she became familiar with the writings of Lydia Maria Childs, the editor of the first edition of Incidents. "Jacobs's story was important to the abolition movement because it told the story that nobody would tell: the sexual exploitation," says Yellin. "Everybody hinted about it. Frederick Douglass mentioned it in his 1845 Narrative. But nobody told the story that I'm sure the abolitionist movement understood needed to be told."

After publishing her own edition of Jacobs's story, Yellin set about to write Harriet Jacobs: A Life, published this January. As she gathered research, she came across more and more of Jacobs's papers: news.paper articles and letters to abolitionist Frederick Douglass, to William Lloyd Garrison, the publisher of the Liberator, and to Amy Kirby Post, founder of the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society, whose home served as a station on the Underground Railroad. It was to Amy that she wrote the letter about the Emancipation Proclamation.

"These papers offer an unprecedented insight into Incidents," Yellin says. "But they go even further by illuminating the infrastructure of black activism and of women's activism before, during, and after the Civil War."

The Harriet Jacobs Papers include writings by her brother John and her daughter Louisa. There are published and unpublished items about Jacobs and her family, including legal documents about their enslavement, reviews and correspondence about Incidents, and manuscripts regarding Harriet Jacobs's relief work during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The new edition covers her childhood and her experiences as a mother and as a fugitive in Edenton. She fled to New York City and then to Rochester in 1849, to join her brother John. There she became friends with Post while working in the reading room run by John Jacobs. Post urged her to tell her story to help the antislavery cause.

In the early days in the North, Jacobs had kept silent about her treatment as a teenager, torn over whether or not to expose herself so publicly. In an 1852 letter to Post, Jacobs explains her reticence:

Your proposal to me has been thought over and over again but not without some most painful remembrances. Dear Amy if it was the life of a Heroine with no degradation associated with it far better to have been one of the starving poor of Ireland whose bones had to bleach on the highways than to have been a slave with the curse of slavery stamped upon yourself and Children. . . . I had determined to let others think as they pleased, but my lips should be sealed and no one had a right to question me. For this reason when I first came North I avoided the Antislavery people as much as possible because I felt that I could not be honest and tell the whole truth.

Eventually Jacobs realized the significance of her story and decided to go ahead, although she wrote under the pseudonym Linda Brent and assigned fictitious names to everyone in the book. In that same 1852 letter, Jacobs explains her decision: My conscience approved but my stubborn pride would not yield. I have tried for the past two years to conquer it and I feel that God has helped me or I never would consent to give my past life to any one for I would not do it with out giving the whole truth. If it could help save another from my fate it would be selfish and unchristian in me to keep it back. Two thousand copies of Incidents were printed. "In general," Yellin says, "the book was reviewed only in the antislavery press and the black press in this country. It was reviewed at length in the mainstream press in Great Britain. All reviews were extremely positive. The book instantly became part of the arsenal of the organized abolitionist movement." Its notoriety brought Jacobs work as a liaison between Northern philanthropists and free blacks. She became an official agent for the New England Freedmen's Aid Society and for the New York Quakers. During the Civil War and Reconstruction, Jacobs worked with fugitive slaves and freed people in Washington, D.C.; Alexandria, Virginia; and Savannah, Georgia, where she organized schools and health care.

In an 1864 letter to her editor, Jacobs describes her relief work in Alexandria. She opened a school for black children and enrollment tripled in three months. "I am full of hope for the future. A Power mightier than man is guiding this revolution; and though justice moves slowly, it will come at last. The American people will outlive this mean prejudice against complexion."

But it was not all optimism for former slaves at the end of the war. In an 1865 letter to Jacobs, her daughter Louisa writes about viewing the body of Abraham Lincoln, who had just been assassinated:

Thousands went to look, for the first time, on their emancipator, as he lay in state at the White House. 'Ah child,' said an old woman to me, 'they have killed our best friend. He was next to God.' Another standing by exclaimed, while wiping the tears from her eyes, 'His heart was good and great. How he doted on us, poor black folks!' Old Aunt Sicily, who bore the yoke of slavery of 110 years, looked upon Mr. Lincoln with a reverential feeling, beautiful to behold in one so aged, 'for the privilege,' she says, 'that he gave her to die free.' The day after his assassination she said to me, 'I can't believe that such a good man is dead. But, child, they can't kill his work. They can't put the chains on me again.'

Jacobs's papers detail her life after the Civil War. She traveled to England and lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She secured funding for orphanages in the South. Jacobs's final years were spent in a Washington, D.C., which was still segregated. She ran two boarding houses, one for whites and the other for blacks.

In 1867 Jacobs wrote to Ednah Dow Cheney, secretary of the New England Freedmen's Aid Society, giving a report on the state of the recently freed slaves. In it she noted that she was writing from her grandmother's house, where she had hidden so many years ago: "I am sitting under the old roof twelve feet from the spot where I suffered all the crushing weight of slavery. Thank God the bitter cup is drained of its last dreg. There is no more need of hiding places to conceal slave Mothers."

"Everything she touched is so extraordinary," Yellin says of Jacobs. "We don't know of any woman who was a slave in the South, a fugitive in the South and the North, who wrote a slave narrative and then went back down South to do relief work and establish a school. And she wrote about it all in the Northern press. We just didn't have that story before; and now we do."

Paulette W. Campbell is a freelance writer in Burtonsville, Maryland.

Jean Fagan Yellin received $147,500 from NEH to conduct research on the papers of Harriet Jacobs.