She is best known for her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The first woman to author a fugitive slave narrative in the United States, Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was one of the first open discussions about the sexual harassment and abuse endured by enslaved women. Harriet, born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813, had to fight unceasing sexual advances from her slaveowner right from a young age before she could escape to the North.
The daughter of slaves, Delilah and Daniel Jacobs, Harriet did not really face the harsh realities of slavery when she was a child. “[We] lived together in a comfortable home,” she wrote in her autobiography, using the pseudonym “Linda Brent”.
“And, though we were all slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed that I was a piece of merchandise,” Harriet added. Even when her mother died, she didn’t have to grieve for so long as she was moved into the home of her mother’s mistress, who taught her to read and sew and took very good care of her.
But Harriet’s joy was short-lived when the kind mistress died. Harriet, then 12 years old, was sent to the mistress’ niece. But that niece was only three years old, hence, Harriet’s actual owner became the niece’s father, an Edenton physician called Dr. James Norcom. And that was when Harriet’s woes began.
From 1825, when she entered the home of Norcom until 1842 when she escaped from slavery, Harriet struggled to resist the sexual advances of Norcom. Harriet first noticed that Norcom was a sexual threat when he started whispering “foul words” in her ear, according to one account by PBS. He eventually started coming on strong but Harriet, then in her teens, refused his advances. Norcom even built a cottage for Harriet four miles from town as his wife was getting suspicious of his moves.
Harriet later asked Norcom if she could marry a free Black man, but Norcom refused. As Harriet became more desperate to gain her freedom, she started a sexual relationship with a neighbor, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, who was a young White lawyer. Harriet and Sawyer had two children, Joseph and Louisa, by the time she was 20 years old. Still, Norcom continued to harass her.
“I knew what I did,” Harriet wrote explaining her decision to accept Sawyer as her lover, “and I did it with deliberate calculation.” But “there is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you,” Harriet wrote.
Indeed, it was a desire for freedom, rather than a White lover, that compelled Harriet to have an affair with Sawyer, she explained. “I knew nothing would enrage Dr. Flint [Harriet renamed Norcom as Flint in her autobiography] so much as to know that I favored another. . . . I thought he would revenge himself by selling me, and I was sure my friend, Mr. Sands [Sawyer], would buy me.”
Harriet, after giving birth to her children, hoped that by seeming to have escaped, Norcom would be pressed to sell her children to the father. Thus, in June 1835, after seven years of ill-treatment, Harriet escaped. She stayed with neighbors for some time before moving into a tiny crawlspace above a porch built by her grandmother, a free Black woman, and uncle.
“The space was nine feet long and seven feet wide,” PBS wrote. “Its sloping ceiling, only three feet high at one end, didn’t allow her to turn while laying down without hitting her shoulder. Rats and mice crawled over her; there was no light and no ventilation.”
But Harriet remained there for the next seven years, reading the Bible, sewing and keeping watch over her children who she could see while they played outside through a peephole she had drilled. She also wrote to Norcom on several occasions to confuse him as to where she actually was. By 1837, Sawyer, who had purchased the children he had with Harriet as she wished, was elected to the United States House of Representatives. He moved to Washington, D.C. but unfortunately did not emancipate the children.
In 1842 when Harriet escaped to the North by boat, her daughter was then in Brooklyn, New York. She had been sent there by her father Sawyer to work as a house servant. Harriet moved to the North to get back her daughter. And she would succeed. While living a strained life as a fugitive slave, Harriet reunited with her daughter in Brooklyn, and later got a place for her two children to live with her in Boston. She then worked as a nursemaid before working with her brother, John S. Jacobs, in an antislavery reading room and bookstore in Rochester above the offices of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper, The North Star.
It was during this period that she met with the Quaker reformer Amy Post, who alongside others, urged Harriet to write the story of her enslavement. Harriet’s autobiography, which was edited by white abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, and published in 1852, did not shy away from discussing the unpleasant stories of sexual abuse of enslaved men and women or the pain enslaved mothers felt following the loss of a child.
Harriet’s autobiography, which the antislavery press in the United States and Great Britain praised, was rediscovered during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and will not be authenticated by scholars until 1981. It had at the time often been considered a work of fiction. Harriet, before her death on March 7, 1897, became legally free after a friend arranged her purchase, according to PBS. She worked with the abolition movement before the Civil War began. While the war was ongoing, she raised money for Black refugees and worked to better the lives of enslaved people who had been freed.
By the mid-1880s, Harriet had settled with her daughter in Washington, D.C. Not much is known about the last 10 years of her life. She was 84 years old at the time of her death.