Women’s History Month Wednesday: Harriet Jacobs

The 2023 theme for Women’s History Month is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.” Each week I’m highlighting one woman from the past who wrote about women along with one contemporary woman who wrote about her. Women writing about women who wrote about women. This week’s installment on Harriet Jacobs and Jean Fagan Yellin contains elements of a great literary detective story.

Harriet Ann Jacobs (1813-1897) is best known for her 1861 autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs had been born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina, and as a girl came to live in the household of one of the town’s physicians, Dr. James Norcom. By the time she entered her teens, Norcom made clear his plans to force her into a sexual liaison. Jacobs, determined to avoid this and secure her freedom, began an affair with a local lawyer, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, and had two children with him. Still, Norcom pursued her.

In the 1830s, Harriet Jacobs hid herself in her grandmother’s attic and orchestrated the sale of her children to Sawyer, who eventually got them to freedom in the North. Jacobs remained in the cramped space for seven years before she could arrange to safely follow. In New York, she became involved in abolition work and in the early 1850s began writing an account of her life as an enslaved person.

A sympathetic white friend had purchased Harriet Jacobs’s freedom. Jacobs no longer had to worry about Norcom using the Fugitive Slave Law against her, but she still chose to publish her autobiography under the pseudonym Linda Brent, and she changed the names of the other real-life people in her story. She told an unvarnished tale about the sexual violence endemic in slavery, something long whispered about but rarely publicly discussed. Jacobs also worried about reactions to her confession about her out-of-wedlock relationship with Samuel Sawyer. It took a great amount of bravery to write such a revealing book.

By the time it was getting into readers’ hands in early 1861, the secession movement had started in the South. The Civil War would begin in April. Harriet Jacobs worked in Washington, D.C. to assist the formerly enslaved people who fled there for safety. She and her daughter Louisa operated a school, too, before they headed back South after the war to help the newly freed people. Jacobs ultimately returned to Washington, where she died in 1897.

Harriet Jacobs’s book was largely forgotten by the time the twentieth century rolled around. Most historians who ran across old copies of it assumed it was fiction, penned by an abolitionist to promote the cause. But Jean Fagan Yellin (1930- ), then an English professor at Pace University who wrote about nineteenth-century women, race, and literature, wasn’t so quick to accept that assumption. She combed through archives for years, looking for mentions of the work and clues to its author’s identity. In 1981, Yellin published the article “Written by Herself: Harriet Jacobs’s Slave Narrative” in the journal American Literature. Six years later, Harvard University Press republished Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, edited by Yellin.

The biography, Harriet Jacobs: A Life, came out in 2004, Jean Fagan Yellin’s expert narrative of Jacobs’s extraordinary life. Without Yellin’s willingness to ask new questions and explore new sources, Harriet Jacobs might have been lost to history for many more years.