Narrative accounts written by men and women formerly enslaved are an important source of information for us, enabling us to learn about the experiences of enslavement in the time before the Civil War. These autobiographical narratives were mainly written by men and women who had escaped slavery. Through their writing and public appearances, they became representatives of the system of slavery and as such, spokesmen and women for abolitionists and others who advocated for emancipation. At this time in American history, the notion of the equality of the races was still a radical idea. These well-written, compelling narratives provided evidence for the goal of equality as well as illustrating in sometimes frightening terms the conditions under which the enslaved lived in the Southern and border states.
Harriet Jacobs, born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813, wrote one of most vivid narratives. Personal and physical characteristics are revealed: bravery; determination; devotion to family; physical, mental, and psychological stamina. She also committed to paying forward the help she received in her escape by teaching, lecturing, and advocating for emancipation.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, By Herself, edited by Lydia Maria Child, was published in 1861.
This is the harrowing story of how an enslaved woman endured years of persecution and molestation at the hands of her enslaver and of her determination to escape and bring her children to freedom.
Harriet’s mother and father were mixed race, so she was light-skinned. Her father was a carpenter who attempted – unsuccessfully – to buy freedom for his wife and for Harriet and her younger brother William. Harriet’s grandmother was the daughter of a planter and one of his enslaved women, and the two families – the enslavers and the enslaved – were interconnected over several generations.
When Harriet’s mother died, her owner/mistress took Harriet into her home. She was taught to sew and read. When Harriet was 11, this woman died. Although Harriet hoped that she would be freed in the will, she was instead was left to her owner’s five-year-old niece. Dr. Flint and his wife, parents of the 5-year-old, became Harriet’s new owners. Harriet was harassed and molested by Dr. Flint — she was young, around 12 or 13. She says, O, how I despised him!… When he told me that I was made for his use, made to obey his command in every thing; that I was nothing but a slave, whose will must and should surrender to his, never before had my puny arm felt half so strong… No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men… The degradation, the wrongs, the vices, that grow out of slavery, are more than I can describe. They are greater than you would willingly believe.
Harriet devised a plan to have an affair with another White gentleman, who was kind and who promised to purchase her if possible, along with any children she might have. Her affair with Mr. Sand lasted several years and she bore him two children, but Dr. Flint continued
to threaten her and reminded her that the children belonged to him because he still held her. She feared he would sell the children to spite her, and the only way she could think of to stop him was to run away herself.
Because she was so closely watched, Harriet knew she had to be supremely careful about her escape. So she hid first to await a better time. Her hiding place was a very small attic space above her grandmother’s shed – nine feet by seven feet, and only three feet high. There she lived, curled over for most of the day, for seven years, awaiting an opportunity to flee.
After a period of time, Mr. Sands bought the children – he was their father after all – and sent them north to live with relatives. At that point, Harriet knew she could leave herself.
She finally escaped by boat and sailed to New York, where she was eventually reunited with her children. She, along with her daughter, became active in the equality movement; she wrote this narrative, traveled, and taught in schools for Black children.
Her story is important because of the revelations about how enslaved women were treated. Her determination to fight against her fate — engaging in a purposeful affair with a White man, spending seven years in a cramped attic – is extraordinary. Dr. Flint’s treatment of Harriet is emblematic of the sexual exploitation of enslaved women by White men with power over them. In addition, he introduced the threat of permanent separation from her children. She wished a life of freedom for them and this motivated her actions as well.
The full text of the Harriet Jacobs narrative can be accessed on the University of North Carolina Documents of the South website: https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/menu.html.
By Hammond-Harwood House Executive Director, Barbara Goyette