“I was born a slave; but I never knew till six years of happy childhood had passed away.”
Born into slavery to Elijah and Delilah Jacobs in 1813, Harriet Ann Jacobs grew up in Edenton, N.C., the daughter of slaves owned by different families. Her father was a skilled carpenter, whose earnings allowed Harriet and her brother, John, to live with their parents in a comfortable home. Her grandmother, Molly Horniblow, was a beloved adult in young Harriet’s life a confidant who doled out encouraging advice along with bits of crackers and sweets for her grandchildren.
“…though we were all slaves,” Harriet wrote, “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.”
When Harriet was six, her mother died and she was sent to live with her mother’s owner and mistress, Margaret Horniblow. Welcomed into the family, Harriet was taught to read, write and sew and remained there happily until the woman’s death in 1825.
Harriet had hopes she would be emancipated. Instead, she was bequeathed to the mistress’ three-year-old niece, Mary Matilda, daughter of Dr. James Norcom.
“The degradation, the wrongs, the vices that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe.”
At age 11, Harriet and her brother John, who had been purchased by Dr. Norcom, moved into the physician’s household.
“When we entered our new home we encountered cold looks, cold words, and cold treatment," Harriet recalled.
Harriet was deeply unhappy, and after her father’s death, the Norcom’s residence “seemed more dreary than ever.”
Over the years, Dr. Norcom’s unwanted sexual advances and his wife’s vindictive jealousy tormented Harriet.
“The secrets of slavery are concealed like those of the Inquisition,” she wrote. “My master was, to my knowledge, the father of 11 slaves. But did the mothers dare to tell who was the father of their children? Did the other slaves dare to allude to it, except in whispers among themselves? No indeed? They knew too well the terrible consequences.”
When Dr. Norcom forbade her from marrying a free black carpenter, Harriet entered into a liaison with Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, an unmarried white lawyer and future U.S. Congressman. Their union produced a son, Joseph, in 1829, and a daughter, Louisa Matilda, in 1833.
Before the birth of her first child, Harriet moved to her grandmother’s home where Dr. Norcom continued to pursue her throughout the years. When Harriet again refused to become his mistress, she was banished to Dr. Norcom’s son’s plantation to work in the home.
When she learned her young children would soon join her, to be brought up as plantation slaves, Harriet quickly plotted her escape. If she were to leave, the children would remain with her grandmother, avoiding the brutalities of slavery.
“Whatever slavery might do to me,” she wrote, “it could not shackle my children. If I fell a sacrifice, my little ones were saved.”
“At times, I was stupefied and listless; at other times I became very impatient to know when these dark years would end, and I should again be allowed to feel the sunshine, and breathe the pure air.”
Harriet went into hiding, first at the homes of friends, and later in the home of her grandmother. There, above a storeroom, she hid in a small garrett, measuring about nine feet long and seven feet wide. The highest point was just three feet.
“To this hole I was conveyed as soon as I entered the home," she wrote.
Under stifling conditions, with no room to stand or exercise, Harriet remained for nearly seven years in her self-contained “prison” until opportunity presented an escape.
Although the children were unaware of her presence, Harriet was able to hear and observe Joseph and Louisa Matilda as they grew.
“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.’ ”
While Harriet was in hiding, the children’s father, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, purchased the children and Harriet’s brother John, with a promise they would be freed. When Louisa Matilda was 7 years old, he made arrangements for her to move north and stay with a family in New York City.
Before Louisa Matilda left Edenton, Harriet revealed herself to her daughter, swearing her to secrecy. Harriet had a similar reunion with Joseph, just before she escaped.
“For the last time I went up to my nook. Its desolate appearance no longer chilled me, for the light of hope had risen in my soul.”
In 1842, with the help of a trusted friend, Harriet secretly boarded a boat in Edenton harbor bound for Philadelphia. After disembarking, she traveled by railway to New York, where she was soon reunited with her daughter and her brother John, who had previously moved north. A year later, her son, Joseph, joined the family in Boston.
Harriet traveled between New York and Boston, working as a nursemaid for the family of Nathanial Parker Willis. Even though Harriet was miles away from Edenton, the Norcom family continued to seek her out in an effort to re-enslave her.
In 1852, Harriet’s employer Mrs. Cornelia Willis, an anti-slavery sympathizer, arranged for Harriet’s purchase and freed her.
“My heart was exceedingly full,” wrote Harriet. “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.”
“It is painful for me, in many ways, to recall the dreary years I passed in bondage. I would gladly forget them if I could.”
For a short time Harriet and her brother worked in Rochester, N.Y. in the Anti-Slavery Office and Reading Room, where they became acquainted with Frederick Douglass, Amy Post and other abolitionists.
With Amy’s encouragement, Harriet began writing Incidents in 1853. When attempts to have the book published failed, she had it “printed for the author” in 1861. The British edition, The Deeper Wrong, was published the following year.
During most of the 1860s, Harriet performed relief work, first nursing black troops and teaching, and later, assisted by Louisa Matilda, aiding freedmen in Washington, D.C., Savannah, Ga., and Edenton. For a time, she ran a boarding house in Cambridge, Mass.
Later, Harriet and her daughter lived in Washington, D.C., where Louisa Matilda participated in organizing meetings of the National Association of Colored Women.
Harriet died in Washington on March 7, 1897, and was buried next to her brother in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge.