Note on Harriet A. Jacobs. by Anita Patterson
Following a City Council resolution to create a Cambridge African American Historical Trail, one of the many luminaries commemorated in Cambridge is the author, abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate Harriet A. Jacobs. Born in 1813 into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina, Jacobs resisted sexual victimization by her master, and had two children, Joseph and Louisa, with Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, a lawyer and congressman. Escaping in 1842 to Brooklyn, New York, Jacobs was reunited with her daughter, and arranged for her son to be sent to her brother, John, in Boston, while she worked as a nanny in the household of the poet and editor, Nathaniel Parker Willis.
Learning that her owner was pursuing her, she left her job for Boston in 1844, and four years later joined her brother, a lecturer for the abolitionist movement, in Rochester. There Jacobs worked in the antislavery reading room and bookstore above the offices of Frederick Douglass's newspaper, The North Star and lived for nine months in the home of the feminist and abolitionist Amy Post. In 1852, Jacobs was granted freedom by Cornelia Grinnell Willis, her employer’s second wife. With the aid and encouragement of Post and the novelist Lydia Maria Child, Jacobs wrote and self-published her life story, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself, which appeared under the pseudonym Linda Brent in 1861, and is now acclaimed as one of the great works of the American literary canon. Jacobs and her daughter resided in Cambridge from 1869 to 1877, first at 10 Trowbridge Street and then at 127 Mount Auburn Street, and her brother, John, moved to 11 Brewer Street in 1873 and died later that year.
There was strong, active support of the struggle for Civil Rights and women’s suffrage in Cambridge, which was home to prominent African Americans including to William Wells Brown, Lunsford Lane, and John Milton Clarke, Cambridge’s first black councilman, who had all, like Jacobs and her brother, written and published slave narratives. Jacobs died in Washington, D. C., in 1897, and is buried in Mt Auburn Cemetery next to her brother. As Jean Fagan Yellin, her biographer, has written, “Incidents is…a work of American genius, and Harriet Jacobs’s life is, in Emerson’s sense, a representative life.” (xxi)
Suggested further reading: William L. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story (1986); Hazel V. Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood (1987); Joanne M. Braxton, Black Women Writing Autobiography (1989); Dana D. Nelson, The Word in Black and White (1992); Carla L. Peterson, "Doers of the Word" African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880) (1995); Deborah Garfield and Rafia Zafar, eds. Harriet Jacobs and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: New Critical Essays (1996); and Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life (2004).
Author, Anita Patterson is a Board Member of the Harvard Square Neighborhood Association and a Professor of English at Boston University where her research focuses on American literature, modernism, and black poetry of the Americas, and my approach, which emphasizes transnational and intercultural dialogue. Her many publications include From Emerson to King: Democracy, Race, and the Politics of Protest (Oxford University Press, 1997).