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Harriet Jacobs

by Jean Fagan Yellin

11 Feb. 1813–7 Mar. 1897

A drawing of Harriet Jacobs by Keith White, 1994. Image from the State Archives of North Carolina.Harriet Jacobs, writer and reformer, was born a slave in Edenton. Her grandmother, "Yellow" Molly Horniblow, who was freed in 1828, subsequently bought a house in Edenton and earned her living as a baker. It is probable that her father was the slave Daniel, a skilled carpenter and "old and faithful servant" of Dr. Andrew Knox of Pasquotank County. Her mother was the slave Delilah, property of the tavernkeeper John Horniblow. She had one brother, John S. Jacobs, who was younger than herself. Jacobs had no formal education, but was taught to read and write by Margaret Horniblow, her first mistress.

Publication of Jacobs's pseudonymous slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (ed. by L. Maria Child, 1861), established the fugitive slave Harriet Jacobs as an African-American activist and writer. Her book was republished in England the following year as The Deeper Wrong: Or, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (ed. by L. Maria Child, 1862). Probably the only slave narrative to focus on sexual oppression as well as the oppression of race and condition, Incidents is unique among nineteenth-century American autobiographies. It is a first-person account of a woman's struggle against her oppression in slavery as a sexual object and as a mother. Its avowed purpose was to enlist American women in the struggle against slavery and racism, and it was only after great difficulty that Jacobs published it with the aid of her editor, the abolitionist woman of letters Lydia Maria Child.

Jacobs composed her autobiography between 1853 and 1858. She wrote pseudonymously, calling herself "Linda Brent" and using fictitious names for everyone else. In Incidents, she writes that she was orphaned when a child and at the death of her beloved mistress was sent to a licentious master, "Dr. Flint" (Dr. James Norcom). He subjected her to unrelenting sexual harassment. In her teens she bore two children to "Mr. Sands" (probably Samuel Tredwell Sawyer), another white man. When her jealous master threatened her with concubinage, she ran away. With the help of sympathetic black and white neighbors, she was sheltered by her family and for years remained hidden in the home of her grandmother "Aunt Martha," a freed slave. During this period the father of her children, who had bought them from her master, allowed them to live with her grandmother. Although later he took their little girl to a free state, he failed to keep his promise to emancipate the children.

About 1842, Harriet Jacobs finally escaped to the North, contacted her daughter "Ellen" (Louisa Matilda Jacobs), was Runaway slave notice about Harriet Jacobsjoined by her son "Benjamin" (Joseph Jacobs), and found work in New York City as a nursemaid for "Mrs. Bruce" (Mrs. N. P. Willis). In 1849 she moved with her brother "William" to Rochester, N.Y., where both became members of an active group of reformers. Jacobs made a confidante of feminist-abolitionist Quaker Amy Post, who urged her to write the story of her life to aid the antislavery cause.

When—after she had corresponded with Harriet Beecher Stowe and William C. Nell—her book finally appeared in the early months of 1861, Jacobs traveled to various northern cities, attempting to swell sentiment for emancipation by publicizing and circulating Incidents. During the Civil War, she moved to Washington, D.C., to nurse black troops. Then, with her daughter, she followed the Union armies south.

Well known among reformers as "Linda" because of her book, Jacobs embarked upon a career as a relief worker, making herself a link between the philanthropists of the North and the freedpeople of the South. In 1863 she was at Alexandria, Va., employed by the Quakers of Philadelphia to work among the "Colored Refugees"; in 1865 she was at Savannah, Ga., sent on a similar mission by New York Quakers; in 1868 she was in England soliciting funds for a home for the orphans and the aged among the Savannah freedpeople. The letters Jacobs composed throughout these years and published in the reformers' newspapers comprise an extraordinary series of first-person reports on relief work among the freedpeople.

Little is known of her later years in Cambridge, Mass., and in Washington, D.C., where she died. Jacobs was eulogized as "a woman of strong individuality and marked character" by another prominent former slave, the Reverend Francis Grimke. She was buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Mass.


Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself , ed. by L. Maria Child . . . ed. and with an introduction by Jean Fagan Yellin (1987).

Dorothy Sterling, ed., We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century (1984).

J. F. Yellin, "Written by Herself : Harriet Jacobs' Slave Narrative," American Literature 53 (1981).

Additional Resources:

Yellin, Jean Fagan. 2004. Harriet Jacobs: a life. New York: Basic Civitas Books.

Jacobs, Harriet A., John S. Jacobs, Louisa Matilda Jacobs, and Jean Fagan Yellin. 2008. The Harriet Jacobs family papers. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

UNC-TV’s “Black Issues Forum” Episode 2416, “Slave Narrative: Harriet Ann Jacobs”

"Harriet Jacobs 1813 - 1897." Africans in America. WGBH. PBS Online. (accessed June 19, 2013).

Kuhlman, Erica. "JACOBS, HARRIET A. (Linda Brent) (c. 1813-1897) American author and abolitionist." A To Z Women in World History. New York: Facts on File, Inc. 2002. 130-132. (accessed June 19, 2013).

Andrews, William L. "Harriet A. Jacobs (Harriet Ann), 1813-1897." Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2004. (accessed June 19, 2013).

Image Credits:

White, Keith. "N_94_2_136 Harriet Jacobs." Drawing. State Archives of North Carolina. Flickr. 1994.

[Runaway slave notice about Harriet Jacobs], Copy from the American Beacon, July 4th 1835, North Carolina Division of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC, USA.

Origin - location: 


Thank you for this detailed resource on the great Harriet Jacobs. Had it not been for historical databases such as yours, I’d never have come to learn that I am a descendent of Harriet Jacobs. I was born significantly later than other family members in my generation, and somehow missed out on the many stories that families typically pass down through generations. My grandparents once had an original copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in their possession, and my Aunt had a copy of Elijah Knox’s emancipation papers…I wish I inherited them both. Never knew how significant they’d be to me as an adult American woman of color. Also, I intend to read Jean Yellin’s book soon, as I’m eager to learn about the more recent discoveries on Harriet Jacobs.

Learning about my ancestors thank you

Dear Knox, 

Thank you for visiting NCpedia and for your comment! We're glad you found this resource to be useful for you and your family history. 

Best wishes,

Molly Goldston, NC Government & Heritage Library

I've recently found out about Harriet Jacobs and as I live in Japan (not Japanese) I came across the Japanese translation of her book 'Incidents in the life of a slave girl". The reason I am writing to you (I wasn't sure who to write as I couldn't find a foundation or anything similar connected to her) is that the cover art for her book is quite disturbing. It's an illustration of what I assume to be Harriet Jacobs but she has been so white washed that I strongly doubt the publisher or illustrator even read the book. I would sincerely hope to see this rectified especially in these times of racial sensitivity.



I suggest you contact the publisher of that translation. 

Erin Bradford, Government and Heritage Library

Is there any information about what happened to Harriet's brother?

How did Harriet Jacobs Die??????

Dear Emily,

Thank you for visiting NCpedia and for taking time to share your question. 

Unfortunately, I haven't found a reference to the specific cause of death.  My understanding is that very little is known about Harriet Jacobs in her later years.  She was 84 when she passed away so it's reasonable to assume that she probably died from complications of old age or illness.  

You may be interested in the resources that we included with the NCpedia article – some of them are more recent work that has been done on the story of her life, including Jean Yellin’s book.  You may find some additional details in there.  There is also a PBS video that you might find helpful.

I hope this helps!  And please let me know if you have any additional questions.

Best wishes,

Kelly Agan

thankyou so much person that did this peice u helpedme so much on my book report

i think this article was very helpful

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