Harriet Jacobs: Biography & Books

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby

Kaitlin has a BA in political science and extensive experience working in the business world as Director of Marketing and Business Development at a financial advice firm.

In this lesson, you will learn about the life of Harriet Jacobs, an American abolitionist born into slavery. Explore how she fought slavery and read about her autobiography, which was published at the start of the Civil War.

Freedom at Any Cost

What is the most important thing in your life? Is it your family, your friends, your possessions, your experiences? What if all of these things were in jeopardy, along with your freedom? That was the dilemma abolitionist Harriet Jacobs faced when escaping from the South prior to the Civil War. She faced sexual harassment, the fear of her children being sold away from her, and even death at the hands of her cruel master. Even after her escape, Jacobs was still not safe for a long time, as legislation made it legal for her to be kidnapped and returned South. Jacobs detailed all of these things in her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. She spent the rest of her life trying to make a difference in the lives of people that had been affected by slavery.

Notice for Return of Harriet Jacobs
Harriet Jacobs return notice

There's Something about Harriet

Harriet Jacobs was born in 1813 to parents that were both slaves. She was taught that she was a person foremost, despite the fact that she was legally seen as property. When her mother died, Jacobs was sent to live with her mother's mistress, Margaret Horniblow, who taught her to sew, read and write. When her mistress died, Jacobs was left to Mary Matilda Norcom, her mistress's niece, who was only three years old at the time. Mary Matilda's father, Dr. James Norcom, began to sexually harass and attempt to seduce Jacobs as soon as she was considered old enough.

In order to escape Norcom's unwanted attention, Jacobs began an affair with Samuel Sawyer, a neighboring white lawyer who became a U.S. Congressman. Sawyer was the father of her children and eventually bought them from Norcom via a third party. This enraged Norcom, and he made plans to send Jacobs and her children to work as field hands. Fearing that Norcom would sell her children away from her, Jacobs pretended to run away to the North, but hid for seven years in her grandmother's attic. Sawyer sent their children, Louisa and Joseph, to live with Jacobs' grandmother after he purchased them, but failed to free them as he had promised. Jacobs eventually escaped North and made her way to New York, where she worked as a nurse for the Willis family, who were prominent in publishing and were kind to her.

After the death of Mrs. Willis, Jacobs went to England to care for her daughter, Imogen, and experienced a lack of racism for the first time in her life. When she returned to the U.S., she moved to Boston to be near her family, including her brother John and both of her children. Her daughter began attending school, and Jacobs and her brother began meeting people in the abolitionist movement, including Frederick Douglass and Amy Post. Her brother John began speaking out against the institution of slavery, and Harriet began to raise support for the abolitionist movement. When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, this put Harriet and John at risk of being recaptured. John left for California and took Jacobs' son, Joseph, with him.

Jacobs went back to work for the new Mrs. Willis, Cornelia, who was also a staunch abolitionist. When Mary Matilda and her husband came looking for Jacobs, Cornelia purchased her freedom without telling her beforehand. Her friend Amy Post encouraged Jacobs to write her memoirs, telling a slave woman's side of the story. Jacobs did so, and began to shop it around without much success, until Lydia Child, a famous abolitionist, agreed to edit it and write the foreword.

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