Life of a Slave Girl - Harriet Jacobs

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luinrina

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"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…
 
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