Life of a Slave Girl - Harriet Jacobs

luinrina

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Joined
Jul 30, 2018
Messages
1,445
Location
Germany
#1
Jacobs_book cover.jpg

"Patient in tribulation, fervent in spirit serving the Lord"

Part 1

Harriet Ann Jacobs was born on February 11, 1813 in Edenton, North Carolina. Her mother was Delilah Horniblow, her father Elijah Jacobs, a skilled carpenter. She had a younger brother named John.

They were all slaves, belonging to different families – Delilah and her mother Molly Horniblow for instance were the property of John Horniblow, a tavern owner. When John Horniblow died, Molly's children were distributed among John's children, Delilah ending up with Margaret Horniblow. Molly remained with Mrs. John Horniblow until the widow's death, when she received her freedom.

Harriet didn't know she was a slave until she was six years old. She found out when her mother died and Harriet was sent to her mother's mistress Margaret Horniblow.

“…though we were all slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandise, trusted to them (slave owners) for safe keeping, and liable to be demanded of them at any moment.”
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 11

She got lucky with her mistress because Margaret was friendly toward the young girl. She not only taught Harriet to sew but to read and write as well – something which was forbidden by law, with sentences of whipping for the slave and a fine or jail time for the white offenders if found out.

When Margaret Horniblow died in 1825, Harriet hoped to be emancipated. Instead, she was bequeathed to her mistress's niece Mary Matilda. Since her new mistress was only three years old, Harriet was the de facto property of the girl's father, Dr. James Norcom.

Jacobs_Norcoms.jpg

Dr. James Norcom and his wife Mary Matilda "Maria" Horniblow Norcom
From Find a Grave

Dr. Norcom bought Harriet's brother John, and the two children moved into the physician's household where they were treated coldly and harshly. About a year later, their father died as well, leaving the children with only their grandmother, uncles and aunt.

Dr. Norcom soon started sexually harassing Harriet; the girl had barely reached her adolescence. Mrs. Norcom noticed and blamed the girl for her husband's behavior. Harriet managed for months to evade the man, but the psychological pressure on her young mind was immense.

When Harriet was courted by a free black man and asked for her hand in marriage, Dr. Norcom forbade it; he also devised a new scheme to finally get Harriet for himself. In order to protect herself, she liaised with Samuel Sawyer – a white, unmarried lawyer who had been friendly to her and showed sympathy for her situation.

Jacobs_Samuel Sawyer.jpg

Samuel Tredwell Sawyer
From Find a Grave

Two children came out of that liaison: Joseph (born 1829) and Louisa Matilda (born 1833). Since their mother was a slave, the children were as well. Harriet hoped though that their father might buy them from Dr. Norcom and then emancipate them.

Since her son's birth, Harriet lived in her grandmother's hut; Mrs. Norcom didn't want her anymore near their house. She continued evading Dr. Norcom's advances, and in consequence was banished to his son's plantation. When her children were to be brought up as plantation slaves, she fled.

Jacobs_Wanted.jpg

From Wikipedia

She at first concealed herself at a friend's place, then found shelter in a slave owner's house whose lady was friendly toward Harriet's family. Next, she hid in a swamp for a few days, before she was eventually hidden in a tiny crawlspace of her grandmother's house for nearly seven years, without her children knowing how close they were to their mother.

“Season after season, year after year, I peeped at my children’s faces, and heard their sweet voices, with a heart yearning all the while to say, ‘Your mother is here.’”
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 224

Jacobs_attic hiding place.jpg

A cutaway drawing of the garret in Molly Horniblow's home where Harriet hid.
From harrietjacobs.org

Dr. Norcom eventually sold Harriet's children and her brother to a slave trader. Mr. Sawyer then bought all three. Instead of emancipating them, however, he kept them in bondage.

Mr. Sawyer was also active in state politics. In 1837 he was elected to Congress and took Harriet's brother John with him. John used the opportunity and escaped. When Louisa was seven, Mr. Sawyer sent her north to New York to live with relatives.

In 1842, Harriet took an opportunity and fled north.


To be continued…
 

(Membership has it privileges! To remove this ad: Register NOW!)

matthew mckeon

Colonel
Retired Moderator
Joined
Oct 3, 2005
Messages
13,493
#4
I have not read it yet. What did you think of it?
Its a first person account of an enslaved woman in an enslaved community. The network of relatives among the slaves, family relations, the mutual obligations, is very interesting.

The centerpiece is Norcom's pursuit of the teenage Harriet. His flow of verbal obscenities, the bullying, the controlling, physical abuse, threats, and Harriet's attempts to resist in an unequal struggle is extraordinarily vivid, and if you have any exposure to similar situations, quite modern, and even familiar. If you have any empathy in your personality, its a tough read.

Its an essential text.
 

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Messages
17,927
Location
Central Pennsylvania
#5

Yes. Have heard ( seen ) the usual denials on Harriet's story. You know. " She made it up " and " Abolitionists' propaganda ", despite documentation otherwise. Heck, she had a tough time getting it published- if her narrative was indeed ' propaganda ', she'd have had them lining up. Book seems to me to be beyond necessary reading, seems vital.
 

Pat Young

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Featured Book Reviewer
Joined
Jan 7, 2013
Messages
30,197
Location
Long Island, NY
#6
Its a first person account of an enslaved woman in an enslaved community. The network of relatives among the slaves, family relations, the mutual obligations, is very interesting.

The centerpiece is Norcom's pursuit of the teenage Harriet. His flow of verbal obscenities, the bullying, the controlling, physical abuse, threats, and Harriet's attempts to resist in an unequal struggle is extraordinarily vivid, and if you have any exposure to similar situations, quite modern, and even familiar. If you have any empathy in your personality, its a tough read.

Its an essential text.
Ok, just picked it up. Thanks for the rev.
 
Joined
Nov 27, 2018
Messages
878
Location
Chattanooga, Tennessee
#7
I have to assume Elijah Jacobs was a white man, due to the wanted ad speaking of Harriet being Mulatto. Then her own children also sprang from white stock. Family relations are a bit difficult for me to grasp, so excuse my inferences as I try not to muddle up the gene pool. But, are these norms of society; to be considered as back-woodsy; or maybe that nobody really cared; for it sure sounds cold in nature...?
Lubliner.
 

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Messages
17,927
Location
Central Pennsylvania
#9
I have to assume Elijah Jacobs was a white man, due to the wanted ad speaking of Harriet being Mulatto. Then her own children also sprang from white stock. Family relations are a bit difficult for me to grasp, so excuse my inferences as I try not to muddle up the gene pool. But, are these norms of society; to be considered as back-woodsy; or maybe that nobody really cared; for it sure sounds cold in nature...?
Lubliner.

Here's something I've been chasing without success because I'm not a professional. Not Harriet's story so please forgive the thread digression although it's relevant. We lost something valuable IMO, that you can't find existed. Not as convoluted as it sounds. In the South these gene pools continued in chapters written like Keckley's. Open secrets. Keckely remembers her white biological father being publically shamed by a white woman yelling to him, why wouldn't he admit Keckley was his daughter? Keckely's son of whom she was fiercely protective was born of one of these ' you're mine ', white man, enslaved woman violations. Died in the war, in a white unit.

Anyway, keep bumping into something. Poking around records in an area here in PA, inter racial marriages seem to have been accepted. Not just accepted, it's like no one noticed- church weddings, people working, attending social events, marrying again- census listing ' mulatto ', ' black ', ' ' white ', same household. Then BOOM. Nothing. Acceptence was pre war, around the time of the war, decade or so later although I can find a few trees still traced through the 40's and 50's. Slid backwards somewhere and badly. Point being there was a difference, North and South, although of course we'd gotten there the same way. AND what in blazes happened up here, that it all went to heck?

Good news is no one cares again. Only took 100 years.
 
Joined
Nov 27, 2018
Messages
878
Location
Chattanooga, Tennessee
#10
Here's something I've been chasing without success because I'm not a professional. Not Harriet's story so please forgive the thread digression although it's relevant. We lost something valuable IMO, that you can't find existed. Not as convoluted as it sounds. In the South these gene pools continued in chapters written like Keckley's. Open secrets. Keckely remembers her white biological father being publically shamed by a white woman yelling to him, why wouldn't he admit Keckley was his daughter? Keckely's son of whom she was fiercely protective was born of one of these ' you're mine ', white man, enslaved woman violations. Died in the war, in a white unit.

Anyway, keep bumping into something. Poking around records in an area here in PA, inter racial marriages seem to have been accepted. Not just accepted, it's like no one noticed- church weddings, people working, attending social events, marrying again- census listing ' mulatto ', ' black ', ' ' white ', same household. Then BOOM. Nothing. Acceptence was pre war, around the time of the war, decade or so later although I can find a few trees still traced through the 40's and 50's. Slid backwards somewhere and badly. Point being there was a difference, North and South, although of course we'd gotten there the same way. AND what in blazes happened up here, that it all went to heck?

Good news is no one cares again. Only took 100 years.
I understand what you are saying, and agree with you about differences of the public admittance between northern and southern people. I did not say 'acceptance', but purposely omitted it. Deep down in the gut one can almost feel the quiet disdain where in the north an exclamation of 'too late now' exists along with 'let it be'; and in the south, 'I want more' exists along with 'she is mine' exclusivity. But what is remarkable with Harriet's experience is the fact her mother was impregnated by a white man not her master, for Jacobs did not own either Mother or Daughter, and Harriet also was impregnated by Sawyer, a white man not her master. This brings me to see very little acceptability in the whole affair, and I wonder how the other side of the story sounds, but truthfully. Bot being discrepant, but filled with shame, disgrace, and cover-up. Did I make my point?
Lubliner.
 

matthew mckeon

Colonel
Retired Moderator
Joined
Oct 3, 2005
Messages
13,493
#11
I understand what you are saying, and agree with you about differences of the public admittance between northern and southern people. I did not say 'acceptance', but purposely omitted it. Deep down in the gut one can almost feel the quiet disdain where in the north an exclamation of 'too late now' exists along with 'let it be'; and in the south, 'I want more' exists along with 'she is mine' exclusivity. But what is remarkable with Harriet's experience is the fact her mother was impregnated by a white man not her master, for Jacobs did not own either Mother or Daughter, and Harriet also was impregnated by Sawyer, a white man not her master. This brings me to see very little acceptability in the whole affair, and I wonder how the other side of the story sounds, but truthfully. Bot being discrepant, but filled with shame, disgrace, and cover-up. Did I make my point?
Lubliner.
I don't know exactly what your point is. Jacobs was harassed, struck, and threatened to the point of being in fear of her life, by Norcom, who apparently deprived considerably pleasure from sexual bullying, and faced few or no consequences no matter what he did. What is interesting is the web of social and family ties Jacobs lived in and utilized in resisting him and eventually effected her escape.
 
Joined
Nov 27, 2018
Messages
878
Location
Chattanooga, Tennessee
#12
I don't know exactly what your point is. Jacobs was harassed, struck, and threatened to the point of being in fear of her life, by Norcom, who apparently deprived considerably pleasure from sexual bullying, and faced few or no consequences no matter what he did. What is interesting is the web of social and family ties Jacobs lived in and utilized in resisting him and eventually effected her escape.
My point had been the strangeness of a white master that obsessive, sharing his slave girl with another white man. I did not read the book, and didn't have question on validity; but more wondered whether it was an uncommon event in the south, or prevalent in many places. That inference to know the man's side of the ordeal was purely to see his own beliefs in such horrendous treatment, and why others would allow it to prevail. I had no other purpose in it. Thanks,
Lubliner.
 

luinrina

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Joined
Jul 30, 2018
Messages
1,445
Location
Germany
#13
white master that obsessive, sharing his slave girl with another white man.
Norcom didn't share Harriet with Sawyer. Harriet chose Sawyer precisely to escape Norcom's harassment and didn't tell him until she was pregnant by Sawyer. I think she hoped that by no longer being pure and untouched, she would no longer be an attractive victim for Norcom. She was mistaken, he still pursued her, but by that point, Mrs. Norcom was glad to ban Harriet from the house for which made it harder for Norcom to harass her, but he continued to do so for as long as she was close-by. Only when she was banned to his son's plantation did the immediate harassment stop.
 
Joined
Nov 27, 2018
Messages
878
Location
Chattanooga, Tennessee
#14
Norcom didn't share Harriet with Sawyer. Harriet chose Sawyer precisely to escape Norcom's harassment and didn't tell him until she was pregnant by Sawyer. I think she hoped that by no longer being pure and untouched, she would no longer be an attractive victim for Norcom. She was mistaken, he still pursued her, but by that point, Mrs. Norcom was glad to ban Harriet from the house for which made it harder for Norcom to harass her, but he continued to do so for as long as she was close-by. Only when she was banned to his son's plantation did the immediate harassment stop.
Thank you for explaining that to me. I suspected it was so. I also wondered about Norcom's jealousy, how he would keep from harrassing Sawyer. Maybe he did and maybe I should the book, instead of 'spoiler-alert' dialogue, hunh?
Lubliner.
 

luinrina

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Joined
Jul 30, 2018
Messages
1,445
Location
Germany
#15
Thank you for explaining that to me. I suspected it was so. I also wondered about Norcom's jealousy, how he would keep from harrassing Sawyer. Maybe he did and maybe I should the book, instead of 'spoiler-alert' dialogue, hunh?
Lubliner.
If he was jealous, he certainly hid it well behind anger - anger at his slave disobeying her master by avoiding him, not giving into him and his (what he perceived as) "generous" offers, for laying with another white man when she could have had him.

Despite the difficult content, the book is a good read. I can only recommend it. You don't even have to buy it, it's online for free.
 

JPK Huson 1863

Brev. Brig. Gen'l
Forum Host
Joined
Feb 14, 2012
Messages
17,927
Location
Central Pennsylvania
#16
If he was jealous, he certainly hid it well behind anger - anger at his slave disobeying her master by avoiding him, not giving into him and his (what he perceived as) "generous" offers, for laying with another white man when she could have had him.

Despite the difficult content, the book is a good read. I can only recommend it. You don't even have to buy it, it's online for free.

You know what gave me chills the first time? Seeing those misty, Regency paintings of the doc and his wife. Without knowing Harriet's story would probably have been a little enchanted wondering who it was looking at us from Time. Knowing? Made them awfully creepy.

The other thing which struck me about Harriet is her sheer grace. It's all over her narrative. Seven years, seven years in that crawl space ( and no room to crawl ), didn't break her or make her a bitter person, either would have been understandable- just more committed.
 

matthew mckeon

Colonel
Retired Moderator
Joined
Oct 3, 2005
Messages
13,493
#17
My point had been the strangeness of a white master that obsessive, sharing his slave girl with another white man. I did not read the book, and didn't have question on validity; but more wondered whether it was an uncommon event in the south, or prevalent in many places. That inference to know the man's side of the ordeal was purely to see his own beliefs in such horrendous treatment, and why others would allow it to prevail. I had no other purpose in it. Thanks,
Lubliner.
I don't think Norcom was asked permission to "share." I would say that sexual exploitation of enslaved women was common enough.

Norcom's "side" of Jacob's ordeal? Consult the DSM.
 

luinrina

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Joined
Jul 30, 2018
Messages
1,445
Location
Germany
#18
Part 2

Harriet was taken to Philadelphia by ship where she was housed for a while with a free colored family from the Anti-Slavery Society. This family then helped her head north to New York where she found her daughter. In February 1843, her brother John – who had spent three years at sea – meets her in New York and there was much joy about finally being reunited.

To earn money to provide for her daughter Louisa – who was more or less neglected by the family she stayed with – Harriet found a job as a nurse maid with the family of author Nathaniel Parker Willis.

Jacobs_N.P. Willis.jpg

Nathaniel Parker Willis
From
hymntime.com

Whilst Harriet thought Mr. Willis to be more pro-slavery, his wife Mary Stace Willis was anti-slavery. She helped Harriet escape in October 1843 when she ran the risk of being discovered by slavecatchers. She went to Boston where her brother was now active as an abolitionist. It was there that Harriet was reunited with her son Joseph. When Harriet returned to New York, she left the boy in her brother's care.

When a member of the family Louisa stayed with told Dr. Norcom where he could find his slave, Harriet fled to Boston again, this time taking Louisa with her. Even after the danger had passed, the Jacobs stayed in Massachusetts and Harriet started working as a seamstress. However, when Mrs. Willis died in 1845 and Mr. Willis wanted to travel to England with his infant daughter, he asked Harriet to accompany them.

Harriet fully enjoyed the ten months she spent in England. There was no prejudice against colored people, and she forgot all about it until she returned to America.

“For the first time in my life I was in a place where I was treated according to my deportment, without reference to my complexion. I felt as if a great millstone had been lifted from my breast.”
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 275

Soon after her return to Boston, she received a letter from Dr. Norcom's daughter who still owned her. She was by now married to Daniel Messmore and desired Harriet's re-enslavement.

In 1849, John secured Louisa a place at the Young Ladies Domestic Seminary School in Clinton, New York. He then thought of opening an anti-slavery reading room in Rochester. It was the center of anti-slavery activities and Frederick Douglass often spoke there. Harriet accompanied him, joined the Anti-Slavery Society and spoke to educate the people and raise money, but the reading room was not as successful as John had hoped for.

Going to Rochester had a positive effect on Harriet: She met Isaac and Amy Post, Quaker abolitionists. The two women soon became very close friends, and Amy urged Harriet to write down her story.

Jacobs_Isaac+Amy Post.jpg

Isaac and Amy Post
From Wikipedia and diannesalerni.com

In 1850, to escape the newly passed Fugitive Slave Law, John went to California because the state didn't enforce it; he worked in the gold mines (an activity that would eventually carry him and his nephew – who followed him two years later – to Australia). Harriet returned to New York and resumed her work as nurse maid, this time for Mr. Willis's second wife, Cornelia Grinnell Willis and her new baby. The new Mrs. Willis proved as anti-slavery as her predecessor and supported Harriet whenever there was danger of being caught.

Such danger presumably came in 1851 when Harriet received warning that Dr. Norcom was traveling north to catch her. What she didn't know at that point was that her former harasser had died the previous year. Harriet hid in Massachusetts for a month.

In 1852, Daniel Messmore and his wife, Harriet's owner, attempted to catch her. Harriet once again fled to Massachusetts. Unbeknownst to her, while the Messmores were in New York, Mrs. Willis arranged for Harriet's purchase for $300 to free her. The Messmores first declined, but when warned that Harriet had influential friends who would take her north to Canada, they agreed to the deal. Harriet returned to New York a free woman.

“My heart was exceedingly full. I remembered how my poor father had tried to buy me, when I was a small child, and how he had been disappointed. I hoped his spirit was rejoicing over me now. I remembered how my good old grandmother had laid up her earnings to purchase me in later years, and how often her plans had been frustrated. How that faithful, loving old heart would leap for joy, if she could look on me and my children now that we were free!”
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, p. 301-302

Harriet's grandmother died nineteen months later, in September 1853, aged about 80.

After hesitating for a while about writing her story, Harriet eventually warmed up to the idea. Amy Post suggested she contact Harriet Beecher Stowe, but when Stowe wanted to use Harriet's story for her own book, Harriet decided she had to write it herself. She worked secretly at night, not wanting especially Mr. Willis to know about it.

When in 1853 former First Lady Julia Tyler published a defense of slavery, with this responding to the so-called "Stafford House Address" by the Duchess of Sutherland, Harriet sent a reply to the New York Tribune (see post below). It was the first piece of writing of hers that got published. She wrote several more letters to newspapers over the next several years.

The manuscript to her book was completed in 1858. Phillips & Sampson from Boston agreed to publish her book if she got a preface from either Harriet Beecher Stowe or Nathaniel Parker Willis. The latter Harriet refused to ask, the former declined. The publisher soon went bankrupt.

She next tried to publish with Thayer & Eldridge who requested a preface by Lydia Maria Child. Harriet and Child got introduced, and Child then helped Harriet with editing the manuscript. Before the book could be printed, Thayer & Eldridge went bankrupt too, but Harriet was able to buy the stereotyped plates.

In early 1861, she finally got Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl published by a Boston printer "for the author."

Jacobs_original book cover.jpg

To be continued…
 

luinrina

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Joined
Jul 30, 2018
Messages
1,445
Location
Germany
#19
"The Affectionate and Christian Address of Many Thousands of the Women of England to Their Sisters, the Women of the United States of America" (better known as the "Stafford House Address") by Harriet Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland, published in London Times on November 9, 1852.

In response:
"The Women of England vs. the Women of America" by Julia Tyler, published in New York Times on February 5, 1853.

Harriet's response to Mrs. Tyler's article, published in New York Tribune on June 24, 1853:
Jacobs_article 1_cut.jpg

Jacobs_article 2_cut.jpg

Jacobs_article 3_cut.jpg

Jacobs_article 4_cut.jpg

Jacobs_article 5_cut.jpg
 

luinrina

First Sergeant
Forum Host
Silver Patron
Joined
Jul 30, 2018
Messages
1,445
Location
Germany
#20
Part 3

In 1861, at the beginning of the war, Harriet and Lydia Maria Child were promoting the book and trying to sell it. Harriet's brother John traveled to England and published a condensed version of Harriet's story, A True Tale of Slavery. This narrative left out the sexual harassment, rather focusing on the issues of slavery as an institution in order to get the English to support the Union. Both books gained popularity with abolitionist throughout the war.

Starting in August 1862, Harriet got busy in Alexandria and the capital area. She helped with the contrabands, organizing food and shelter for both escaped slaves and poor free blacks and providing health care. She recruited more relief workers, and petitioned known abolitionists for support financially and materially. She distributed donations sent by Quakers from Philadelphia and New York. She furthermore established schools for black children that had been freed from slavery so that they could be taught, as well as churches and hospitals. On September 5, 1862 the Boston Liberator published "Life Among the Contrabands" where Harriet described the conditions among blacks in Alexandria.

Jacobs_Freedman’s Village barracks in Arlington.jpeg

Residents of Freedman’s Village reading books outside their barracks in Arlington, Virginia, between 1863 and 1865. (Library of Congress)
From
timeline.com

But she also worked in Boston, assisting many newly freed blacks who had migrated north and finding families for orphaned black children.

In November 1863, Harriet's daughter Louisa joined her in Alexandria. Louisa, after having finished her education, wanted to teach, and both mother and daughter made educating freed slaves their mission. Louisa first taught in private homes until on January 11, 1864 the Jacobs Free School was opened. Student numbers grew rapidly, and Louisa soon needed more teachers to help. During the day, they would teach the children, and for the adults the school offered night classes.

Jacobs, Louisa Matilda.jpg

Louisa Matilda Jacobs
From Wikipedia

In 1863, Harriet received note that her son Joseph was in Australia and ill. He needed money for the trip home to America which Harriet sent him. His further fate is not known; Harriet seemed to never have heard from him again.

Jacobs, Joseph.jpg

Thought to be Joseph Jacobs
From harrietjacobs.org

In August 1864, Harriet organized an awareness day about chattel slavery in Alexandria. It was to celebrate the 30th anniversary of emancipation in the British West Indies and other colonies. The festival found imitators throughout the north.

After the war, Harriet and Louisa went to Savannah to provide what help they could offer to the freedmen there. Because many left the rural areas, the city was soon populated, with starvation and sickness being widespread. They also traveled to England to raise funds for an orphanage and home for the elderly which they wanted to build in Savannah, but their plans never came to pass.

Harriet also visited Edenton several times, distributing clothes and helping the freedmen. In 1892, she sold her grandmother's house for $425.

In her later years, she was less active. She nonetheless supported her daughter's cause of educating African Americans.

Harriet Jacobs died on March 7, 1897, aged 82. She is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts, together with her brother John and daughter Louisa.


Sources:
- Wikipedia
- harrietjacobs.org
- Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, available for free on archive.org
- Harriet Jacobs: A Life by Jean Fagan Yellin (google books)
 



(Membership has it privileges! To remove this ad: Register NOW!)
Top