Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in North Carolina in 1813. She managed to free her two children, remain hidden in her own town for seven years (while a vicious owner relentlessly hunted her), escape to the free states, avoid capture after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, make a living, start a school after the Civil War, and somewhere in there, to write a remarkable memoir. “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” tells the chilling and inspiring account of her life. Here is an excerpt:
Pity me, and pardon me, O virtuous reader! You never knew what it is to be a slave; to be entirely unprotected by law or custom; to have the laws reduce you to the condition of chattel, entirely subject to the will of another. You never exhausted your ingenuity in avoiding the snares, and eluding the power of a hated tyrant; you never shuddered at the sound of his footsteps, and trembled within the hearing of his voice.
Ms. Jacobs was initially owned by a woman who promised to free her. As often happened, however, the promise was not made good, and Ms. Jacobs passed through the estate of her mistress to the testator’s three year old niece. The niece’s father was a lecher and harassed and pursued Harriet, until in a desperate bid for safety, she allied herself with a white neighbor. At 16, Ms. Jacobs bore that neighbor, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, the first of their two children. He would go on to become a U.S. Congressman.
Afraid that her children would be sold and sent away, or shipped off to a distant relative of her tormentor, Jacobs ran away, hoping that Sawyer would buy them. Through an agent, Sawyer did, though he did not free them as she had hoped. Jacobs hid in a garage and then the teeny garrison of her grandmother’s home for a total of seven years. She survived horrible cold and heat, invasive stinging bugs, and near loss of the use of her limbs from being cramped for so long. How she managed to survive defies understanding. Like many bondwomen with children, her concern and longing for those children seem instrumental in keeping her alive.
How she escapes, manages to arrange for the freeing of her children, and her encounters in the north are fascinating and important pieces of American history. This slave narrative is provocative, well-written, and horrifying.
Annette Gordon-Reed’s book on the Hemingses has been a great companion text to “Incidents”, particularly on the topic of the kinds of calculations and risks a bondwoman might make in allying herself with a powerful white man (in that case, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings).
Just as I was finishing the memoir, I learned that Harriet Jacobs was buried in nearby Cambridge, Mass., in the Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Two weeks ago, K and I went to pay our respects. It was the only stone we saw that day with visible tokens of respect carefully placed on its upper edge. Three stones and a penny. Having forgotten to cut the irises that I meant to bring from my garden, I laid another coin above her name.
* The book spells ‘Harriet’ with one ‘t’. Obviously, her gravestone spells her name with two.