People & Events
1813 - 1897
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It was not Harriet Jacob's nature to give up without a fight. Born into slavery, Harriet Jacobs would thwart repeated sexual advancements made by her master for years, then run away to the North. She would later publish an account of her anguished life in her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Harriet's childhood was a happy one. "[We] lived together in a comfortable home," she wrote in her autobiography, "and, though we were all slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed that I was a piece of merchandise." She even found happiness after her mother's death, when she moved into the home of her mother's mistress -- a kind woman who nurtured the young Harriet, teaching her to read and sew, and seeing to her well-being. The happiness would not last, though. Upon the death of the benevolent mistress when Harriet was 12 years old, ownership of Harriet was transferred to the mistress' niece. But since the niece was only three years old, Harriet's actual master was the father, a Dr. James Norcom. This man would be the cause of a great deal of misery.
Around the time Harriet turned 15, Norcom began his relentless efforts to bend the slave girl's will. At first he whispered "foul words" in her ear. As time went on his tactics became more overt. Still Harriet refused to give in. To get Harriet away from his wife, who was suspicious of her husband's intentions, he built a cottage for the girl slave four miles from town. Harriet had previously asked Norcom for permission to marry a free black man. Norcom had violently refused. Now Harriet had a plan to disrupt his fight for sexual conquest: She had become friends with a caring white man -- an unmarried lawyer.
She would become sexually involved with this man, become pregnant, and an infuriated Norcom would sell her and her child. A child was conceived. Harriet felt "it was something to triumph over my tyrant in that small way." Nevertheless, Norcom had no intention to sell her.
Harriet gave birth. Still Norcom pursued Harriet. The harassment continued even after she bore the lawyer another child. Finally, after she learned that Norcom was preparing to put her children to work as plantation slaves, she had had enough. In June of 1835, after seven years of mistreatment, Harriet escaped. For a short time she stayed with various neighbors, both black and white. Then she moved into a tiny crawlspace above a porch built by her grandmother and uncle. The space was nine feet long and seven feet wide. Its sloping ceiling, only three feet high at one end, didn't allow her to turn while laying down without hitting her shoulder. Rats and mice crawled over her; there was no light and no ventilation. But her children had been bought by the lawyer and were now living in the same house. Harriet could even see them while they played outside through a peephole she had drilled. She lived in the crawlspace for seven years, coming out only for brief periods at night for exercise.
In 1842, Harriet made her escape to freedom. She sailed to Philadelphia, and after a short stay, travelled to New York City by train. There she was reunited with her daughter, who had in the meantime been sent by her father. Harriet would later move to Rochester, New York, to be close to her brother, also a fugitive slave. There she became involved with the abolitionists associated with Frederick Douglass' paper, the North Star. In the following years, she would move back to New York, flee to Massachusetts to avoid Dr. Norcom, and finally become legally free after a friend arranged her purchase. Friends later convinced her to write an account of her life as a slave. The book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, was one of the first open discussions about the sexual harassment and abuse endured by slave women -- a topic that even made many abolitionists uncomfortable.
Harriet was actively involved with the abolition movement before the launch of the Civil War. During the war she used her celebrity to raise money for black refugees. After the war she worked to improve the conditions of the recently-freed slaves.
Runaway notice for Harriet Jacobs
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
Letter from Harriet Jacobs to Ednah Dow Cheney
"A Slave Is Tortured"
Margaret Washington on Harriet Jacobs
Part 4: Narrative | Resource Bank Contents | Teacher's Guide
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