north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program



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      For years historians dismissed the published life story of Harriet Jacobs as fabrication. John Blassingame in The Slave Community (1972) judged that "the work is not credible." In 1987 Jean Yellin stipulated that Jacobs was indeed the author and that details regarding people, places, and events were true to the historical record. Her new edition of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl met wide critical acclaim and Jacobs's story has taken its place in American letters, ranking as second in importance as a slave narrative only to the autobiography of Frederick Douglass.

      Born in 1813 in Edenton, Harriet was the daughter of enslaved parents. After the death of her mother in 1819, Harriet moved into the household of her white mistress, Margaret Horniblow. Upon Horniblow's death in 1825, Harriet and her brother were left by the terms of her will to her three-year-old niece, Mary Norcom. Soon after the funeral Harriet Jacobs moved into the household of Mary's father, Dr. James Norcom. Harriet claimed in her book that she was physically abused by Dr. Norcom. Jacobs established a liaison with local attorney Samuel Sawyer, who in time would serve in Congress. The relationship produced two children, a consequence that enraged Norcom, who moved Harriet to one of his plantations. She fled from the plantation in 1835 and went into hiding in the attic space of a house belonging to her paternal grandmother, Molly Horniblow, a free black woman living in Edenton only a block from Norcom.

      In that small space, according to the book, Harriet Jacobs remained for almost seven years, apart from her children, most human contact, and practically any physical activity. She could see the children through a peephole but dared not reveal her presence. She could also see on the sidewalk Norcom who travelled as far as New York in search of her, offering a large reward. In 1842 Jacobs boarded a ship in Edenton and escaped to New York, where she established relationships with leading abolitionists and reformers. She in time gathered her children to her side and in 1852 achieved her freedom.

      Among her friends was Lydia Maria Child, who initially encouraged her to meet with Harriet Beecher Stowe and share with her details for incorporation into the work that would become Uncle Tom's Cabin. Jacobs declined to collaborate and, on Child's encouragement, penned her own story. That account, entitled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and credited on the title page "written by herself," begins "Reader, be assured this narrative is no fiction." Child's contribution, to judge from surviving letters, was minimal. Initial publication plans in 1858 fell through when the publisher went bankrupt, but the book appeared in 1861 followed by an English edition. The book was issued to assist the abolitionist cause in which Jacobs took an active role. "I do this for the sake of my sisters in bondage," she wrote in the introduction.

      Little is known about Jacobs's life after the Civil War. She served as a relief worker among freedmen in the South working with Quakers and other charitable groups. She returned to visit Edenton. Jacobs lived in Washington, D.C. and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she was buried in 1897.

      Modern readers have questioned the authenticity of the text given the contrast between the refined, genteel style and the sensational content. Yellin contends that the style, one to which Jacobs had become accustomed during her years among her northern acquaintances, was consistent with her private letters. Thomas C. Parramore questioned the reliability of Jacobs damning testimony about Norcom, which he found to be inconsistent with known facts about the physician's family life and behavior. Archivist George Stevenson attested that facts were presented faithfully and correctly as Jacobs understood and remembered them, remarkably so in fact, but allowed that, as an abolitionist tract, the entire book constituted "carefully selected testimony."

Jean Fagan Yellin, ed., Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself (by Harriet A. Jacobs) (Harvard University Press, 1987; originally published, 1861)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, III, 265-266 -- sketch by Jean Fagan Yellin
George Stevenson, "The Search for the Edenton Years of Harriet Ann Jacobs," Carolina Comments (March 1990): 51-57
Thomas C. Parramore, "Harriet Jacobs, James Norcom, and the Defense of Hierarchy," Carolina Comments (May 1990): 82-87
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north carolina highway historical marker program

Harriet Jacobs

© 2008 North Carolina Office of Archives & History — Department of Cultural Resources