Harriet Jacobs was a former slave who penned an autobiography detailing her escape from an oppressive master who made sexual advances towards her. Jacobs became a darling of the anti-slavery movement with the publication of her book, Incidents In The Life Of A Slave Girl, helping other slaves by way of her celebrity.
Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, N.C. in 1813. Jacobs wrote in her book that the first six years of her life, she didn’t realize she was owned. After the death of her owner, she was given to to a girl too young to be a master and fell under the rule of the girl’s father, Dr. James Norcom, at age 12. When Jacobs turned 15, Norcom pursued her sexually though she rebuffed him at every turn.
Norcom’s wife was well aware of her husband’s insidious actions. He built a cottage four miles away just for Jacobs. She wanted to marry a free Black man but was refused, and instead got pregnant by an unmarried white lawyer. Jacobs thought this meant that Norcom would sell her but he was relentless in his pursuit and even took ownership of her two children.
In the summer of 1835, Jacobs learned that Norcom was going to make her children work as slaves and that motivated her escape. With the help of neighbors both Black and white, she lived for a time in her grandmother’s vermin-infested attack. For seven years, Jacobs was a fugitive, separated from her children.
In 1842, she finally boarded a boat and left North Carolina for Philadelphia and then took a train to New York. She was later reunited with her daughter and began working with abolitionists who were associated with Frederick Douglass‘ paper, The North Star. She eventually purchased her freedom after years as a fugitive, and was convinced by friends to write about her trials.
In 1853, Jacobs began writing anonymous letters to the New York Tribune detailing her journey. In the letters, she broached the uncomfortable subject of sexual harassment and what mothers needed to do to protect their children from sexual predators.
In 1860, a year before the start of the Civil War, her memoir was finally published making Jacobs a global figure as the anti-slavery movement began to flourish. She used her fame and money to help other refugee slaves but the book fell into obscurity.
After her death, the book was reprinted twice in 1973 and 1987, becoming an important account of what fugitive female slaves faced. By some historic accounts, Jacobs is considered the first person to create such a narrative.