Though our history books may recount facts about the system of slavery in early America, it is only with testimonial accounts from those who lived through this horrible system that true, raw light may be shined on the reality of what slaves experienced during this time.
Harriet Jacobs, born into slavery in the fall of 1813 in North Carolina, lived a life of hardship and was one of thousands who suffered from unimaginable treatment through the system of slavery. Spending a large amount of her life as a slave of the Norcom household, Jacobs details the abuse and cruelty that she faced during her life of bondage in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which she was able to publish in 1860 (“Harriet A. Jacobs’ 2004).
This recount of her life has provided historians insight into the real and ugly truth that slaves, particularly female slaves, faced throughout the country in the early 19th century. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl depicts Jacob’s lifestyle, the sexual abuse that she faced throughout her bondage, provides insight into the culture of how African Americans were treated in both the North and South, and a different perspective to what the Civil War was really about.
Born into bondage, Harriet Jacobs expresses, through Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, that she did not recognize her position in society until she was six years old and how she was taught to read and sew prior to the painful experiences that she faced once she was a young woman.
Upon the death of her mother, Jacobs was taken into care under Margaret Horniblow, the mistress of the household which she had been born into and was taught how to read and sew under relatively kind care (“Harriet A. Jacobs’ 2004). Given these circumstances, as most slaves were not allowed a formal education, Jacobs was lucky to receive some instruction on the basics of reading and writing, allowing her to recount her life experiences in this primary document.
It was not until Mrs. Horniblow died and twelve-year-old Harriet was willed to her mistress’s young niece, describes Jacobs, that she experienced a real look into the life of a slave- and the sexual threats that a female slave could experience. According to Jacobs, because her new master was only three years old, she became the de facto servant of Dr. James Norcom, who would play a large role in the hardships and sexual harassment that she faced.
Throughout her teenage years, like many female slaves experienced at this time, Jacobs was subject to numerous sexual advancements and threats by Dr. Norcom (given the name Dr. Flint in her writing), which she details throughout Incidents. It was the combination of the sexual threats from her master and mistreatment by Mrs. Norcom due to suspicion over her husband’s behavior that led teenage Harriet to seek friendship and protection with Samuel Sawyer, a white neighbor of the family she served.
Jacobs knew that direct confrontation may only worsen the situation because she knew, as many other female slaves did, that there was no affective way to stand up to her abuser and master- especially with the threat of sexual assault and even her life- on the line. Hoping to discourage more harassment from Dr. Norcom, Jacobs started a relationship with Sawyer and had two of his children by the time that she was 20.
Jacobs describes in Incidents that instead of discouraging Norcom, this relationship enrages him and in 1835 he threatens to send her and her children off to work on one of his back-breaking plantations. Out of fear for her children and herself, Jacobs runs away to her grandmother’s house that summer and ends up spending seven years in a crawlspace described by Jacobs as a, “little dismal hole,” where she read, sewed, and raised her children to the best of her abilities.
Unfortunately, Jacobs’ escape story was not an uncommon one as many other slaves attempted to escape the horrors of their bondage, some of these fugitive slaves being killed before they could reach freedom and others facing many years in hiding for fear they may be discovered and returned (“Fugitive Slaves” 2007).
This vivid recount of Jacobs’ experience during the worst years of her bondage, including the sexual threats and years of hiding that she endured, is only one of hundreds of similar stories from female slavery that have been told, not even coming close to the thousands of situations that will never be shared.
In Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs details her escape to the North after Samuel Sawyer is elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and leaves her children in servitude, and she must live the life of a fugitive slave in the antebellum North to track down her children and free them as well.
Escaping to North Carolina by boat, Jacobs is able to find her daughter, Louisa, in Brooklyn, New York and finds refuge in Boston where she works as a nursemaid until she fears that Norcom knows where they are hiding out and she must continue moving (“Harriet A. Jacobs’ 2004). Life in the North for African Americans was different from the slave-holding South, but it only included limited participation in society as there were still strict barriers between races.
Though much of the North was slave-free, there were not significant numbers of freedmen living there in comparison to the South, and any runaway slave was still faced with a life of fear, hiding, and avoidance of those who would want to return them to their owners (Alexander, 1980). There were pockets of the North, as Jacobs’ account shares, that provided refuge for escaped bondservants; however, life in the North was far from an egalitarian utopia and both free and escaped African Americans faced similar treatment to those of the South.
Harriet Jacobs provides critical insight into the general attitude of both Northern and Southerners towards African Americans as she continues to describe, in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, what the culture was like during the time of the Fugitive Slave Acts. Jacobs describes how the slave Hamlin was the first to fall victim to the “bloodhounds” of the North to the South under these new laws, beginning a culture of terror and forced nomadic lifestyles for many African American families and others that had lived quietly and comfortably for over 20 years (Jacobs, 1860).
As she continues to describe the reign of fear that had begun with these laws, Jacobs contrasts the luxuries of the everyday white lifestyle with the horrors that so many African Americans faced, sending a powerful message with the line, “But what cared the legislators of the ‘dominant race’ for the blood they were crushing out of trampled hearts?”. These words, full of contempt and disgust, provide insight into what the racial divide was, disregarding the politics of slavery.
This chapter of Incidents allows readers to infer that the Civil War was not merely about slavery supporters and deniers, because the culture of America had accepted the gap in racial superiority and most white Americans believed in the “white man’s republic.” Given Jacob’s words, it is probable that the Civil War was less a fight over the morals of owning another person and more a conflict over the right that states had to maintain their property for production and commerce.
The first-hand account of Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, provides incredible insight into the sexual abuse faced by many female slaves, the treatment of African Americans in both the North and South, and gives a new perspective into what the foundational conflict of the Civil War really was.
Jacobs takes readers through the details of her harassment as a young female slave, the constant and forced nomadic lifestyle that she faced as an escaped slave and reveals the truth about the American culture of white supremacy visible under the Fugitive Slave Acts leading up to the Civil War. History is written by the winners, and without detailed primary sources from so many fugitive and freed slaves, our understanding of the Civil War and history as we know it may have been a very different story.
- Alexander, Thomas B., et al. “Antebellum North and South in Comparative Perspective: A Discussion.” The American Historical Review, vol. 85, no. 5, Dec. 1980, p. 1150
- “Fugitive Slaves, African American Community during Slavery, African American Identity: Vol. I, 1500-1865, Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature, Toolbox Library, National Humanities Center.” National Humanities Center, 2007.
- “Harriet A. Jacobs (Harriet Ann), 1813-1897.” University of North Carolina, 2004,
- Jacobs, Harriet Ann, (Linda Brent). “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” Boston: 1861, c1860, 1861.