Harriet Ann Jacobs was born into slavery on February 11, 1813 in Edenton, North Carolina. Her father was a carpenter who was owned by a doctor; her mother was owned by a tavern owner. Because her parents lived apart, Harriet lived with her mother and by her own account had a happy early childhood. Her mother unfortunately died when she was six and it was at that time that she realized she was a “piece of merchandise”; she had been very shielded from that fact up until that point. After her mother died, she moved into the home of her mother’s mistress, Margaret Horniblow, who was kind and taught Harriet to read and sew. In many ways Margaret was a mother figure, so when she died it drastically changed Harriet’s life. Margaret had willed Harriet to her niece, but because the niece was only three Harriet became the property of the father, Dr. James A. Norcom.
Harriet was 12 when she went to live with Dr. Norcom. She immediately finds her new master cruel and negligent; it is a vast contrast to the life she has led up until this point. Around the time when Harriet turns 15, the relationship turns much more violent. He whispers “foul words” in her ear and pressures her to have a sexual relationship with him. Harriet refuses to give in. She asks for his permission to marry a free black man and he refuses. Dr. Norcom’s wife begins to be suspicious of her husband’s intentions, so he builds a cottage for Harriet four miles from town. Harriet takes this opportunity away from Dr. Norcom to become friends with Samuel Sawyer, a lawyer who is Caucasian and would one day become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. To thwart Dr. Norcom’s advances, she purposely becomes involved with Mr. Sawyer in an effort to get pregnant with the hopes that Dr. Norcom would be so upset that he would sell her and her child. When she becomes pregnant, she felt “it was something to triumph over my tyrant in that small way.”
Harriet ends up having two children with Mr. Sawyer, a boy and girl. Instead of selling Harriet, Dr. Norcom threatens to put her children to work as plantation slaves if she doesn’t submit to his advances. At the age of 19, she decides to risk it all and escapes. She first hides in the Cabarrus Pocosin swamp, then relocates to an attic crawlspace at her grandmother’s house. The space is small – nine feet long and seven feet wide – and has no light and little ventilation. She leaves the children behind, thinking that Dr. Norcom will likely sell them for fear that she would kidnap them. This time, she predicts right. Dr. Norcom sells both children to a slave trader who is secretly representing Mr. Sawyer. Mr. Sawyer temporarily frees the children and sends them to live with Harriet’s grandmother. The children are not fugitives so they are allowed to live in the main part of the house and can go outside. Harriet watches them play in the yard from a small peephole; she only leaves the crawlspace at night to stretch.
Mr. Sawyer marries and is elected to the U.S. Congress in 1836. He decides to bring Harriet’s daughter with him to Washington City to look after his newborn daughter, leading Harriet to fear that Mr. Sawyer may never free her children. Dr. Norcom is still looking for her and placing ads like the one here:
In 1842, Harriet decides to risk it all and escape North to freedom. She sails to Philadelphia and after a brief stay travels to New York City by train. Her son still remains with her grandmother, but she reunites with her daughter who is now living in Brooklyn. She obtains work as a nursemaid for the Willis family and they treat her very well; when they move to Boston she goes with them, where she is reunited with her son. Dr. Norcom continues his pursuit to find her and starts claiming that the sale of Harriet’s children was illegitimate. Harriet fears he will re-enslave them all.
Harriet continues to live with the Willis family as a nursemaid, even traveling with them to England for a year where she enjoys freedom from racial prejudice. Harriet and the family return to the U.S. and she makes the decision to move to Rochester, NY to be closer to her brother Jacob. She becomes involved with the Anti-Slavery Society, which causes her to become very political-minded. When the Fugitive Slave Act is passed in 1850, Jacob and Harriet’s safety concerns increase. They move back to New York City, but when John learns that the new state of California did not enforce the Act, he moves there and brings Harriet’s son with him. In 1852 Harriet learns that Dr. Norcom has died when she receives a letter from his daughter Mary stating that Harriet is now her property. Mary’s husband arrives in New York City and Harriet is sheltered and hidden in an abolitionist supporters home. Cornelia Willis, unknown to Harriet, meets with Mary’s husband and pays him $300 for Harriet’s freedom. It is now March 1852 – Harriet is now officially free.
The Willis family continues to employ Harriet, but she is encouraged by friends to write her story. In June 1853 her first letter was published in the New York Tribune. She continued to write letters about her life until the subject matter becomes to disturbing to publish. Eventually she wrote a book to tell her story titled “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl“, using alias names throughout the book to protect identities and referring to herself as “Linda Brent.”
Harriet is active with the abolitionist movement leading up to the Civil War. Her book turns her into her celebrity, and she uses her fame to raise money for black refugees. After the war she will work to improve the conditions of recently freed slaves.