After being overshadowed by the Civil War, the novel was rediscovered in the late 20th century, when there was new interest in minority and women writers. One scholar researched the novel, identifying Harriet Jacobs as the author and documenting many events and people in her life that corresponded to this fictionalized, autobiographical account.
Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina, in 1813. Her father was Elijah Knox, an enslaved biracial house carpenter owned by Andrew Knox. Elijah was said to be the son of Athena Knox, who was enslaved, and a white farmer, Henry Jacobs. Harriet's mother was Delilah Horniblow, an enslaved black woman held by John Horniblow, a tavern owner. Under the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, both Harriet and her brother John were born into slavery, as their mother was enslaved. Their likely European-American paternity did not alter their status. Harriet lived with her mother until Delilah's death around 1819, when Harriet was six. Then she lived with her mother's mistress, Margaret Horniblow, who taught Harriet to read, write and sew.
Three months before she died in 1825, Jacobs' mistress Margaret Horniblow had signed a will leaving her slaves to her mother. Dr. James Norcom and a man named Henry Flury witnessed a later codicil to the will directing that the girl Harriet be left to Norcom's daughter Mary Matilda, Horniblow's five-year-old niece. The codicil was not signed by Margaret Horniblow. Norcom became Harriet's de facto master.
Norcom sexually harassed Harriet when she came of age. He refused to allow her to marry, regardless of the man's status. Hoping to escape his attentions, Jacobs took Samuel Sawyer, a free white lawyer, as a consensual lover. Sawyer was later elected as a member of the US House of Representatives. With Sawyer, she had two children, Joseph and Louisa. Because she was enslaved, their biracial children were born into slavery and Norcom was their master. Harriet later wrote that Norcom threatened to sell her children if she refused his sexual advances, but she continued to evade him.
By 1835 her domestic situation had become unbearable, and Jacobs managed to escape. She hid in the home of a slaveowner in Edenton to keep an eye on her children. After a short stay, she took refuge in a swamp called Cabarrus Pocosin. She next hid in a crawl space above the ceiling of her grandmother Molly’s shack.
Jacobs lived for seven years in her grandmother's attic before escaping in 1842 to the North by boat to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Sawyer had purchased their two children from Norcom. He let them live with Jacobs' grandmother but he did not free them. The state had made manumission difficult following the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831. While in hiding, Jacobs had glimpses of her children from the attic and could hear their voices.
Jacobs escaped to the North in 1842, where she was taken in by anti-slavery friends from the Philadelphia Vigilant Committee. They helped her get to New York in September 1845. There she found work as a nursemaid in the home of Nathaniel Parker Willis and made a new life. She was also able to reunite with her daughter, Louisa, who had been sent to New York at a young age to work as a "waiting-maid". By 1827, the last slaves had been freed in New York under its gradual abolition law.
In 1845, Jacobs' employer Mary Stace Willis died. Jacobs continued to care for Mary's daughter Imogen and to assist the widower Nathaniel Willis. In January she traveled to England with him and his daughter. In letters home, Jacobs claimed there was no prejudice against people of color in England. After returning from England, Jacobs left her employment with the Willises. She moved to Boston to visit with her daughter, son and brother for ten months. Her brother, John S. Jacobs, who had also escaped and was part of the anti-slavery movement, decided to open an anti-slavery reading room in Rochester, New York in 1849. The black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, was active in Rochester and it was a center of anti-slavery activities among whites as well.
John Jacobs found a school for Louisa and by November 1849, she was attending the Young Ladies Domestic Seminary School located in Clinton, New York. The school was founded in 1832 by abolitionist Hiram Huntington Kellogg. In 1849 Jacobs joined her brother in Rochester, where she met Quaker Amy Post. Amy and her husband Isaac Post were staunch abolitionists. As Jacobs became part of the American Anti-Slavery Society, she became very politicized. She helped support the Anti-Slavery Reading Room by speaking to audiences in Rochester to educate people and to raise money.
On October 1, 1850, John S. Jacobs' speech was quoted in Meetings of Colored Citizens. Following Congressional passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, both John and Harriet Jacobs feared for each other’s safety, as legally they were still escaped slaves. The new law increased pressure to capture escaped slaves and required cooperation from officials and citizens of free states. The Jacobs' siblings left Rochester and returned to New York City. Furious about the act, John wanted to leave the country. When he heard that the new state of California did not enforce the act, he decided to go there. He worked in the gold mines during the Gold Rush, where he was joined in 1852 by Joseph Jacobs, Harriet's son and his nephew.
On February 29, 1852, Harriet Jacobs was informed that Daniel Messmore, the husband of her young legal mistress Mary Matilda (Norcom) Messmore, had checked into a hotel in New York. To avert the risk of Jacobs being kidnapped, Cornelia Grinnell Willis (Willis' second wife) took Harriet and the Willis baby to a friend’s house where they hid. Cornelia Willis encouraged Jacobs to take the baby and go to Willis relatives in Massachusetts. Without Jacobs' knowledge, Cornelia Willis paid $300 to Messmore for the rights to Harriet and gave Jacobs her freedom. Jacobs returned to New York with the Willis child.
In late 1852 or early 1853, Amy Post suggested that Jacobs should write her life story. She also suggested that Jacobs contact the author Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was working on A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. When Stowe wanted to use Jacobs' history in her own book, Jacobs decided to write her own account. She wrote secretly at night, in a nursery in the Willis’ Idlewild estate.
Former First Lady Julia Tyler wrote a defense of slavery titled "The Women of England vs. the Women of America", in response to the "Stafford House Address" petition against slavery which the Duchess of Sutherland had helped to organize. In response to "The Women of England vs. the Women of America", Jacobs wrote a letter to the New York Tribune which was her first published writing; it was published in 1853 and signed "Fugitive".
Over the next several years, Jacobs continued to write her memoir, as well as letters to newspapers. In 1854, as Nathaniel Parker Willis was downstairs writing Out-doors at Idlewild; Or, The Shaping of a Home on the Banks of the Hudson, Jacobs was upstairs completing her own manuscript. Jacobs changed the names of all the people she depicted, including her own, to conceal their true identities and protect them from any adverse reaction. The slave owner "Dr. Flint" was based on Jacobs' former master, Dr. James Norcom.
In 1856, Jacobs' daughter Louisa became a governess in the home of James and Sara Payson Willis Parton, later known by the pen name Fanny Fern.
Boston publishing house Phillips and Samson agreed to print Jacobs' autobiography, if she could convince Willis or Harriet Beecher Stowe to provide a preface, which they thought would help sales. She refused to ask Willis for help and Stowe turned her down. As it happened, the Phillips and Samson company soon closed shop.
In 1860 Jacobs signed an agreement with the Thayer and Eldridge publishing house, which requested a preface by Lydia Maria Child. Child also became involved in editing the manuscript, and the company introduced her to Jacobs. The two women remained in contact for much of their lives. Thayer and Eldridge published the book in 1861.
Jacobs shaped her slave narrative to appeal to middle-class white Christian women in the North, focusing on the detrimental effect of slavery on women's chastity and sexual virtues. She insisted on showing that black slaves were women and mothers, too, challenging the white middle-class cult of womanhood as too narrowly construed. Slave women had often been blamed when white men used them sexually, and Jacobs wanted to show how they were abused by the impossible power relationships. Christian women could perceive how slavery was a temptation to masculine lusts. The later part of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was devoted to Jacobs' struggle to free her two children after she escaped.
Starting in January, 1861, the United States suffered break-up; South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas all seceded from the Union. The first six were the states that had the highest percentage of slaves to the total population among the 15 slave-holding states. In February, representatives from the southern states elected Jefferson Davis as President of the Confederacy. At this time, Harriet Jacobs and her editor, Lydia Maria Child, were trying to sell Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. They wrote to authors and editors of newspapers, to bookstore owners and to friends or frequent correspondents; they wanted anyone to advertise or sell Jacobs' narrative.
In May, 1861, John S. Jacobs, Harriet’s younger brother, was in London to publish a condensed version of her narrative called A True Tale of Slavery. This book covered much of Harriet Jacobs' story, but it excluded the account of sexual harassment. John Jacobs' goal was to focus on slavery as an institution, trying to convince the people of England to support the Union. Not long after he published his narrative, the Civil War began in April, 1861 with the firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina.
In the early years of the war, abolitionists were disturbed that Lincoln directed troops "to avoid any destruction of property," and they did not know what he was going to do about slavery. Unsure of what was to come, John S. Jacobs did not want to return to the United States until the government decided to abolish slavery. Many English had strong business ties to the South; southern cotton supplied British textile mills; and in addition to economic ties, aristocrats and others had some sympathies for the South. There was a threat that Great Britain might enter the war on the side of the Confederacy. John Jacobs stayed in London until the US government indicated it was serious about ending slavery. By January 14, 1862, John had already sold fifty copies of the narrative and stayed only two more weeks in England.
As the war continued, both A True Tale of Slavery and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl became more popular among abolitionists. Both books sold more copies in England than in the United States. The narratives encouraged the war as a fight against slavery.
In January, 1862, Jacobs went with the Female Anti-Slavery Society to Philadelphia to lecture in support of her book. She also sent her book to a member of the Emancipation Committee in London. In England, the book was received as a major work of literature in addition to its anti-slavery position.
In August, 1862, Jacobs worked in Alexandria, Virginia and the Washington DC area to help organize, feed and shelter refugee slaves and the poor free blacks of the region. She also tried to recruit more relief workers. During this period, she wrote to abolitionists Garrison and Charlotte Forten, both to share news and to ask for aid with work and supplies.
By March, 1863, Jacobs noted the condition of poor refugees in Alexandria had improved, although there were 1,500 on a list for housing in the barracks, which could hold only 500. During this time, the marriage laws were changed to allow slaves and freedmen to marry, which she noted brought joy to many people.
In April, Julia A. Wilbur reported the needs of the black people in Alexandria to the Secretary of War, and he took immediate measures for their relief. Jacobs said she had the duty to go to Alexandria and act as a “visitor, advisor and instructor to the Contrabands of Alexandria.” She ordered barracks to be built for the people of Alexandria, and the government honored her request. The additional barracks would house the old, disabled, women, children and orphans. Jacobs was sent to Alexandria to distribute donations among these people.
During this same period, Jacobs was working in Boston to help many poor blacks who had migrated there. An outbreak of smallpox caused many deaths. Other than the smallpox outbreak, the condition of the lives of these people had greatly improved. Jacobs noted that the people wanted to pay for their children to get schooling; they did not want to have a charity school. During this time, the ex-slaves denied having been slaves, and hated being called "contrabands". Alexander Thomas Augusta, a free man of color from Virginia, had earned his medical degree in Canada and started practice there. After returning to the US after the outbreak of war, he appealed to President Lincoln to serve in the Army and received a commission. Jacobs reported that in 1863 he was appointed as a surgeon in the Union Army by the Secretary of War, the first African American to have such a position.
On June 5, 1863, Jacobs and two orphan children were featured at the New England Anti-Slavery Convention. She said she planned to bring many more orphaned black children from Virginia to Boston, and asked for help in placing them in new homes. People in the audience offered to take the two orphans home that day.
From October, 1863 to April, 1865, Jacobs saw progress for the freedmen in Virginia. While living in Alexandria, again, she concentrated on setting up schools run by the community. Her daughter, Louisa Matilda Jacobs and a friend, Sarah Virginia Lawton of Cambridge, dedicated their lives to educating freedmen. “On January 11, 1864, the Jacobs Free School was named in her honor.” She also contributed to organizing the communities of African Americans and to the building of hospitals, churches, schools and homes for newly freed slaves.
Jacobs and her partner, Julia A. Wilbur, founded schools in Washington and Alexandria at the camps of black refugees from the South. But military officers took over houses they were using, as they needed quarters. In the camp areas, the loss of good housing was felt. Educating all people of color still was Jacobs' priority for improving their lives.
According to records, Louisa Jacobs worked in a hospital throughout the Civil War.
Jacobs mused about whether the lives of former slaves would be better because of their own efforts or those of "their white superiors". Jacobs’ daughter taught in private homes until they could arrange a proper school. Soon after, a trustee meeting was called for her and other women who wished to teach. They gained a lease to have a building built for their use for five years. Jacobs' students studied well and had steady progress. There was also a school at night for adults to learn. But the school lacked accommodations for the teachers, who had to board with families. Louisa needed more teachers to help her, and the school was $180.00 in debt with 275 children enrolled.
In May, 1864, Jacobs wrote to the editors of American Baptist requesting help with the “Free Mission", an anti-slavery group. She wanted to collect clothing and basic necessities for the freedmen.
On August 1, 1864, Jacobs returned to Arlington, Virginia. She set up an awareness day in Alexandria about the “struggle against chattel slavery", to celebrate the 30th anniversary of emancipation in the British West Indies and other colonies. It was called the “First of August” celebration, and was Alexandria’s first celebration of this kind. Festivals occurred throughout the North to raise awareness about slavery. This day gave a new meaning to the American flag because it now symbolized freedom for all.
In October, 1864, Jacobs wrote about the Small Pox Hospital in Claremont, which was used for both white soldiers and colored people. All patients were properly cared for and treated alike. Other hospitals were struggling for lack of supplies. Jacobs worked to raise funds and acquire clothing and other supplies; she wanted to ensure quality treatment for black patients.
By the end of October, 1864, Jacobs updated her readers on the current conditions in Alexandria. She said that only a few of the freedmen relied on the government for food and shelter. Most were finding jobs and supporting themselves without additional assistance. Able to find housing in and around Washington, DC, they were living with improved conditions. In December, 1864, Alexandria School received donations to help provide for the children. Along with monetary donations they received books, slates and writing materials.
In 1865, Lydia Maria Child presented pages of Harriet Jacobs' narrative in The Freedmen’s Book. She modified and republished certain passages from Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Child emphasized the role of Jacobs' grandmother, focusing on her devotion and hard work. Such an account gave newly freed slaves an uplifting view to help them deal with their freedom.
In April, 1865, a New York committee reported on its visit to freedmen in Alexandria. It noted that African Americans were happy with the efforts of Harriet Jacobs. The school was under her management, and was successful.
On March 8, 1866, Jacobs wrote to Lydia Maria Child, noting that freedmen were being offered low wages in the Alexandria market. When they turned down job offers, whites complained they did not want to work. "Don’t believe the stories so often repeated that the negroes are not willing to work. They are generally more than willing to work, if they can get anything for it," wrote Jacobs. Salaries were frequently offered to a group of laborers; for instance, Jacobs mentioned a group of former slaves who, for a salary, had to split a dollar and 50 cents.
Jacobs rejoiced when General Sherman gave freedmen 10–20 acres each of their rebel masters' land for three years. Even though it was late in the season to grow any crop, many freedmen were able to find success. “I visited some of the plantations, and I was rejoiced to see such a field of profitable labor opened for these poor people,” says Jacobs. But President Andrew Johnson pardoned most rebels and restored their properties. The freedmen had to find new housing and work. When this happened, Jacobs told the freedmen to remain on the land until ordered to leave by the US government, hoping to stall until Congress stepped in. But the land was eventually returned. The freedmen suffered in winter weather, and the area had an outbreak of smallpox.
In May, 1866, Louisa Matilda Jacobs wrote a letter that was quoted in The Fifth Report of New York Yearly Meeting of Friends on the Conditions and Wants of Freedmen. She starts off saying how Harriet Jacobs was in Savannah with her daughter, where much help was needed with the great amount of newly freed slaves. In the city, 3,933 slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, but by 1866, more freedmen had left rural areas to settle there, reaching a total population of 10,500. She said starvation, sickness and disease were widespread. “Often in the cold weather were hundreds of them huddled together in misery and rags, over a few burning sticks, so desolate and filthy that they scarcely looked like human beings,” wrote Louisa Jacobs. When spring came, some slaves were able to obtain some property to grow crops which were provided by the Committee that Harriet worked for. A school was also opened for freed children to go and get an education. The school acquired books and staff to teach the growing number of students.
On May 26, 1866, a letter was written to Mr. and Mrs. Cheney from Louisa Jacobs. In the letter, she talks about the success of her school. She has been watching children who were at one time not able to read, begin to study arithmetic and geography with a full understanding of the English language. This, she says, is what brings her encouragement for all the work she has been doing. Jacobs then talks about how most freedmen now have their own land or are living on shares with other freedmen. Jacobs still knows that despite this glimpse of success, it will be hard for colored people to really succeed in the south. She mentions that arrests are constant within the colored community—even for the slightest offenses that a white man would get away with. A small charge could put a colored person on the chain gang for 6 months or more. Jacobs stresses that, though things are going well, there are still obstacles ahead.
Around July, 1866, there was a shooting that involved one African getting beaten severely and another being shot and killed. Two accounts circulated about the latter incident, one stating that the white man’s life was in danger and he acted in self-defense, and the other stating that these incidents could have been avoided. Jacobs and her daughter decided to leave Savannah soon after the incident and head back North for the summer. On July 20, 1866, Harriet and Louisa boarded the steamship that took them to New York.
In November, 1866, Harriet Jacobs received news that her son, Joseph, was sick in Australia and needed money for the trip home. Meanwhile, Louisa decided to join the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), which traveled from state to state advocating equal rights for all regardless of age, sex or color. She decided to leave the AERA, however, due to internal disagreements over the proposed 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, to provide citizenship and rights of suffrage to all African Americans. Jacobs and Louisa traveled to England to raise funds for the orphanage and home for the elderly they hoped to establish in Savannah. This refuge for destitute African Americans was never built.
In February, 1867, Charles Lenox Remond, a prominent abolitionist, and Jacobs spoke to audiences in Johnstown, New York, thanks to arrangements made by Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
In 1868, Jacobs visited Britain to raise funds for orphans and freed, but poverty stricken, people in Savannah, Georgia. Jacobs published her appeal for funds in the Anti-Slavery Reporter and asked for them to be sent to Clementia Taylor, Robert Alsop or Stafford Allen. At least one hundred pounds was raised, but because of the prejudice in Georgia, Jacobs thought that the building would need to be delayed. This realisation that the optimism of freedom would not be achieved as quickly as she hoped made this Jacobs' last visit to Britain.
Harriet Jacobs became less active in her later years, but supported her daughter and others in working for education of African Americans. Recently discovered letters written by her daughter, Louisa Matilda Jacobs, reveal aspects of her later life in 1880s and 1890s Washington, D.C. She died in 1897 in Washington, DC. and was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her headstone reads: "Patient in tribulation, fervent in spirit serving the Lord".
In 2017 Jacobs was the subject of an episode of the Futility Closet Podcast, where her experience living in a crawlspace was compared with the wartime experience of Patrick Fowler.