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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 220

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This is the grave of Harriet Jacobs.

I will start this by saying that anyone who has not read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl needs to do so immediately. This is a slave narrative with as much power as Frederick Douglass’ autobiographies or Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave. It is what I usually choose to have students read when I am teaching a relevant course. While Douglass’ description of beating up his slave breaker, the classic text of black masculinity, is certainly deserving of its fame, Jacobs’ stories of both sexual assault, her seven years in her grandmother’s attic, and descriptions of the barbarism of slave owners are equally powerful.

Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813, despite the gravestone reading 1815. Of course, there was plenty of white blood in her parents, as slave rape was so common as to be the norm rather the exception. Buying black women explicitly as sex slaves was not uncommon. And by the time she was in her early teens, her owner, James Norcom, began to sexually harass her. He didn’t rape her–possibly because her grandmother who had been freed was a woman of some status–but he certainly could have. While Incidents is very much written in the style of the slave narrative, a genre that appealed directly to northern Victorian women and thus does not give too much detail, it’s clear that he at least molested her. He also would not let her marry. To protect herself, she gave her body to Samuel Sawyer, a local elite and later a Whig congressman. She had both her children by him. Norcom was furious but he couldn’t do much with Sawyer as her lover. Sawyer promised to buy and then free her children, but, well…. In any case, Norcom owned the kids because slave owners always owned slave children. Norcom threatened to sell her children if she refused to have sex with him. Scared of what to do, she decided to run away in 1835.

Harriet Jacobs sent the next 7 years in her grandmother’s attic.

To me, this incredible physical sacrifice over such a long period of time is amazing. This was North Carolina. It’s an attic. It’s more than a little hot in the summer. It’s pretty bloody chilly in the winter. She could not stand up. She could not make noise. I can’t imagine what she did to cover up sneezing. This was 7 years of involuntary confinement, or at least involuntary if you are determined to resist rape by your master. She could watch her children grown up–from the attic. She suffered lifelong physical debilitation from this, as you might imagine. Her muscles atrophied and one can only imagine both the terror and the boredom. She was not completely without human contact, thanks to her grandmother, who was not only a free woman by this time but also a respected elder who had enough authority in the community to resist at least some violence against herself.

There are other incredible moments in the book. Jacobs’ description of the aftermath of Nat Turner’s Rebellion, when mobs of armed white men came into the plantations to terrorize slaves, determined there were plots afloat to murder them all, is extraordinarily memorable. So are her narratives of the treatment of slaves, most notoriously a slave placed inside of a cotton gin for several days. By the time the gin was opened again, not only had the slave died, but rats had eaten much of the body.

All of this is a shock to the reader, but the real power of the book is her telling the slave story of a woman. Most of the slave narratives were stories by men and primarily about men. Even when they wrote about women, they were still telling a man’s story. Yet sexual labor was a central part of life for many slave women and Jacobs is one of the only contemporary narratives to explore this story.

In 1842, Jacobs finally escaped her grandmother’s attic. Her oldest daughter was allowed to meet her for a night. But there was very strong reason to believe that her hiding place had been discovered. Norcom never stopped wanting to get Jacobs back and she feared greatly what would happen if he did. By this time, Sawyer had purchased the children that came from his affair with Jacobs, but he had not freed them. Luckily for her, she lived relatively near the waterways of the North Carolina coast and was able to escape on a boat and paying off a captain. The reality was that while most slaves had almost no chance of a permanent escape from their hell, the only ones with any realistic chance at all either lived on the border with the North, on the frontier of Texas, in the cities, or near the major waterways. If you were, say, on the Tennessee-Alabama border, it was really not going to happen, no matter what you did, barring exceptional luck.

Jacobs got to Philadelphia and became involved in anti-slavery circles, working as a nursemaid. Her daughter had been sent to New York to work and they reunited, although Louisa had still not been freed. The woman Jacobs worked for died in 1845 but she remained with the family to take care of their little girl. With the family, she traveled to England in 1845, where she found a society much less racist than her own, although of course 19th century England was still plenty racist. She left employment with that family after the England trip and moved to Boston where both her children were. Much of the rest of the book is about protecting her children from being sent back south, before they finally received their freedom. Her brother John was also there. He had escaped many years earlier. He was a strong anti-slavery advocate and established a black school in Rochester. But after the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850, their legal status was now compromised. With John’s speeches sometimes printed, it was not hard for the now aging Norcom to find them. In fact, after California announced it would not enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, John moved there in 1852 to work in the gold diggings and was followed by Jacobs’ son Joseph, who eventually ended up in Australia.

Now, Harriet Jacobs’ technical owner was Mary Norcom, the daughter of her seducer. She had been given as a gift, a common occurrence. By the 1850s, the now grown Mary was married to a man named Daniel Messmore. They traveled to New York and were looking for Harriet. Finally, her white patron Cornelia Willis told Harriet to go into hiding in Boston and then purchased her from Messmore. This of course left Harriet with feelings of great ambivalence, clear enough from the page but not something our experience even allows us to imagine.

Jacobs got to know Amy Post and Harriet Beecher Stowe and when Stowe wanted to use Jacobs’ life in her own work, Jacobs decided to write her autobiography. She changed all the names, giving herself the pseudonym Linda Brent. She started writing it in about 1854. In 1860, a Boston publisher agreed to publish it if Lydia Maria Child would write a preface. Child agreed and the book came out the next year. Child and Jacobs remained in touch for the rest of their lives. During the Civil War, she gave some talks based on her book, worked with slave refugees near Washington, and helped out slaves who had fled to Boston. She went to Savannah immediately after the war to work with the freedpeople, supporting educational efforts, trying to start schools, and celebrating William Tecumseh’s Sherman all too brief redistribution of southern land to the ex-slaves. She spent the last decades of her life working for black education in Washington. She died there in 1897.

Harriet Jacobs is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you are interested in this series profiling other black female freedom fighters, you can support the travel required here. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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