John Hood: Former slave blazed trail for writers

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 8, 2020

RALEIGH — You surely recognize the name Frederick Douglass and know the major role he played in American history after escaping his enslavement in Maryland in 1838. You may even know that the publication of his memoir — “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” — was a turning point in American letters.

But do you recognize the name Harriet Jacobs?

She also emancipated herself through acts of courage and determination. She also wrote a widely read memoir of her enslavement and liberation. And she was a North Carolinian, one of the many of our state’s heroes who deserves memorializing in the form of monuments, statues, or other works of public art.

Harriet Jacobs was born in 1813 in Edenton, one of three children born to her mother Delilah Horniblow. After Delilah died in 1819, Harriet came under the care of her white owner’s daughter, who fatefully taught Harriet how to read and write.

Her next owner, Dr. James Norcom, was a cruel man who soon made his lustful intentions clear. With few options available to protect herself, Harriet initiated a relationship with another prominent Edenton citizen, Samuel Sawyer, a University of North Carolina-trained lawyer later elected to Congress. 

Harriet had two children by Sawyer, fending off Norcom’s advances for a while, but eventually Norcom was able to remove her to a more-remote location and threatened to subject her children to great suffering if she didn’t do what he wanted.

She refused, and this is where her tale took an even-more remarkable turn. Escaping first to a swamp, and then to her grandmother’s house, Harriet Jacobs hid in the attic’s crawl space — only nine feet long, seven feet wide, and three feet high — for nearly seven years. 

Finally, in 1842, she escaped to a ship, then to the North, where she found a home in New York. Her brother John Jacobs had made it to freedom, as well, and she took refuge with him in Boston the following year when James Norcom came hunting for her in New York.

Both Harriet and John Jacobs became active in the abolitionist movement. During the 1850s, white and black friends alike urged Harriet to tell her own story, as Frederick Douglass had done. But Harriet worried that readers would condemn her morals for initiating the affair with Samuel Sawyer in order to escape Norcom’s advances.

Finally, after several false starts, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” was published in 1861. Although presented as a novel with names and places changed, it became widely known that Harriet Jacobs had written her own story in its pages. Contrary to her expectation, readers across America and beyond admired her fortitude and perseverance amidst great suffering (among other things, her seven years hiding in the crawl space had permanently impaired her health).

During the Civil War, Harriet first toured the northern states as a speaker and fundraiser, then plunged into relief work in the South, co-founding a school for freed slaves in Alexandria, Virginia, and, later, in Savannah, Georgia. She lived to be 84 years old, dying in Washington, D.C.

One of my favorite passages of the book describes a visit Harriet makes to England with the orphaned daughter of a white friend. After a dinner in a London hotel, she and the girl retire to their room. “For the first time in my life I was in a place where I was treated according to my deportment, without reference to my complexion,” she writes. “I felt as if a great millstone had been lifted from my breast. Ensconced in a pleasant room, with my dear little charge, I laid my head on my pillow, for the first time, with the delightful consciousness of pure, unadulterated freedom.”

Pure, unadulterated freedom is what she and so many other North Carolinians were long denied. Pure, unadulterated freedom is the goal for which so many fought, sometime paying the ultimate price. By commemorating Harriet Jacobs, we can honor and advance that freedom for future generations.

John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation.