Harriet Jacobs struggled to avoid the sexual victimization that Dr. Norcom intended to be her fate. Although she loved and admired her grandmother, Molly Horniblow, a free black woman who wanted to help Jacobs gain her freedom, the teenage slave could not bring herself to reveal to her unassailably upright grandmother the nature of Norcom's threats. Despised by the doctor's suspicious wife and increasingly isolated by her situation, Jacobs in desperation formed a clandestine liaison with Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, a white attorney with whom Jacobs had two children, Joseph and Louisa, by the time she was twenty years old. Hoping that by seeming to run away she could induce Norcom to sell her children to their father, Jacobs hid herself in a crawl space above a storeroom in her grandmother's house in the summer of 1835. In that "little dismal hole" she remained for the next seven years, sewing, reading the Bible, keeping watch over her children as best she could, and writing occasional letters to Flint designed to confuse him as to her actual whereabouts.
Harriet Jacobs was the first woman to author a fugitive slave narrative in the United States. Yet she was never as celebrated as Ellen Craft, a runaway from Georgia, who had become internationally famous for the daring escape from slavery that she and her husband, William, engineered in 1848, during which Ellen impersonated a male slaveholder attended by her husband in the role of faithful slave.
Jacobs's primary motive in writing Incidents was to address white women of the North on behalf of thousands of "Slave mothers that are still in bondage" in the South. The mother of two slave children fathered by a white man, Jacobs faced a task considerably more complicated than that of any African American woman author before her. She wanted to indict the southern patriarchy for its sexual tyranny over black women like herself.
Harriet Jacobs, best known as the fugitive slave author of the American slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, was also actively involved in reform movements before, during, and after the Civil War.
Her mother was a slave in John and Margaret Horniblow’s home. At the age of six, her mother died and she was left in the hands of Mrs. Horniblow, who taught her how to read and write. When Margaret Horniblow died in 1823, Jacobs was handed over to her three-year-old niece, Mary Matilda Norcom, the daughter of Dr. James Norcom. Jacobs faced many years of sexual advances from Dr. Norcom. Jacobs had two children, Joseph and Louisa Matilda, by a local white lawyer named Samuel Tredwell Sawyer. After the birth of her children, Jacobs moved in with her grandmother, a freed slave who was working as a baker in a nearby home.
Jacobs soon began writing about her experiences with slavery. Her first letter was published on June 21, 1853, in the New York Tribune. She continued to write letters as she prepared her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, which was completed in 1858. The book was set to be published by Thayer and Eldridge in Boston, but they went bankrupt before it could be printed. In 1861, Jacobs published her narrative privately. The book was finally picked up by Tweedie, a London publisher, in 1862. She then went back to Philadelphia and sold fifty copies herself and another $100 worth of copies to the Hovey Committee, the abolitionist group who supported her.
"I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a piece of merchandise."
- Harriet Jacobs, "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," p.5
At her birth, there was no reason to think that baby Hatty would live out her life as anything but a slave - yet she not only freed herself and her children, she became an activist and an author, a runaway whose narrative of her life was championed by the abolitionists and feminists and was a weapon in the struggle for emancipation. During the Civil War she went back south, working as a relief worker and an advocate on behalf of the black refugees behind the Union lines in Alexandria and later in Savannah, telling their story in the northern press.
For breaking from this recognized pattern of male slave narrators - Harriet Jacobs is alone among antebellum female writers of book-length secular autobiographies - Jacobs was either decried as inauthentic or dismissed as atypical.
Jacobs, a missing person in African American, women's, and nineteenth-century studies for so long, now appears ubiquitous; her autobiography crops up on syllabi in American history, Feminist studies, Africana studies, literature of the United States, and other departmental affiliations.