Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897)

Written By North Carolina History Project

A former North Carolina slave turned abolitionist and author, Harriet Jacobs was born in bondage in Edenton.  Her father was a white farmer and her mother a mulatto house slave.  After her mother died, Jacobs lived with her mother’s owner’s wife, Margaret Horniblow.  Soon Horniblow died and Jacobs was willed to a five-year-old relative. In the child’s stead, Dr. James Norcom acted as owner.

Her autobiography explains Norcom and his mentally abusive ways.   The doctor harassed the teenage Jacobs and persistently asked, in various ways, for her to have sex with her. Norcom refused Jacob’s requests to marry a free black man and continued harassing her.  As a form of slave resistance, Jacobs soon befriended a young white lawyer, became sexually involved with him, formed a consensual relationship with him, and eventually gave birth to two children (a slave child’s status depended that of his or her mother).

After a revengeful Norcom planned to work Jacobs’ children as field slaves, she decided to run away.  For seven years in Edenton, Jacobs was hidden and lived in a crawlspace approximately nine feet long and seven wide.  The lawyer, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, a state legislator and later member of the 25th Congress, had purchased her (and his) two children.  Although she lived in cramped quarters, she knew her children’s whereabouts and remained in contact with them.  

Jacobs eventually fled northward in 1842 and ended up working as an abolitionist with Frederick Douglass.  Even up North, she worried that Norcom might claim her and she might be returned to Edenton.  She reunited with her daughter and her fugitive brother in New York and later went to Boston.  In 1852, a few days before she fled to Massachusetts, a friend purchased Harriet Jacobs and ended the possibility that she might be returned to bondage in North Carolina.  

From the moment she absconded until her death, Harriet Jacobs worked to improve the lives of African Americans. Before writing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs worked with abolitionist Amy Post and joined the Anti-Slavery Society. During the 1850s, she wrote  Incidents. Her book did not receive much acclaim during the Civil War; however, Jacobs continued working as an abolitionist and writing letters to the editor and publishing essays in various periodicals such as American Baptist.  After the war, Jacobs joined the American Equal Rights Association and promoted education for freedmen.  

Before her death, Jacobs returned to Edenton and visited relatives.  She died in 1897 and is buried in Cambridge, Massachusetts.