In recognition of Women’s History Month, the Office of Historic Alexandria highlights the contributions of one of the major figures in American history and her relationship to Alexandria.
From the Office of Historic Alexandria
Alexandria, VA – Along with Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, perhaps no book had as powerful an impact on the cause of abolition as Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Unlike Stowe’s fictionalized narrative, Jacobs (writing under the pseudonym of Linda Brent) related her real-life experience of resisting the sexual advances of her master, Dr. James Norcum, from the time she was 15 in 1828. Her ordeal to escape Norcum included having children with another white man who then purchased his children from Norcum and, at 22, hiding in an attic crawlspace for seven years before finally escaping to the North in 1842. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl framed slavery as the opposite of the middle class morals that many of Jacobs’ readers attributed to themselves.
In New York, Jacobs found herself in the company of prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass. She was able to evade attempts by Norcum and his daughter to recapture her by escaping to Massachusetts and England. Jacobs spent years working on the manuscript of her own story, which was finally published in 1861, right before the start of the Civil War, and 19 years after her escape from North Carolina.
In spring 1862, Harriett Jacobs came to Alexandria. Our city was occupied by the Union Army for the entirety of the war, and Jacobs used her notoriety to build a relief network to care for the newly freed enslaved people who flocked to Alexandria, utilizing the Union Army’s policy of not returning contrabands to their Confederate masters.
Jacobs became one of the most credible observers of the conditions that these new arrivals met when they crossed into Alexandria. In a report titled “Life Among the Contrabands,” Jacobs introduced their plight to the readers of William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator in September 1862. Still using the pseudonym of Linda, she wrote:
I found men, women, and children all huddled together, without any distinction or regard to age or sex. Some of them were in the most pitiable condition. Many were sick with measles, diphtheria, scarlet and typhoid fever. Some had a few filthy rags to lie on; others had nothing but the bare floor for a couch.
What struck Jacobs in particular about the newly freed men and women was their desire for education, either for themselves or for their children. In a section of “Life Among the Contrabands,” Jacobs wrote:
A word about the schools. It is pleasant to see that eager group of old and young, striving to learn their A, B, C, and Scripture sentences. Their great desire is to learn to read. While in the school-room, I could not but feel how much these young women and children needed female teachers who could do something more than teach them their A, B, C. They need to be taught the right habits of living and the true principles of life.
Jacobs and her daughter Louisa Matilda, with the help of Louisa’s friend Virginia Lawton, sought to meet that need. After a power struggle with white missionaries over school leadership, the Jacobs School, under Louisa Matilda’s leadership, opened in January 1864 as the first free school under African American control in the region.
Harriett and Louisa Matilda stayed in Alexandria until the Union victory in 1865. They then moved to Savannah, Georgia, hoping to replicate their success in education, but the change in political fortunes for newly freed African Americans due to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and subsequent disbanding of the Freedmen’s Bureau by his successor Andrew Johnson also affected the fortunes of Jacobs and her daughter.
They left Savannah in 1867. Harriett returned to England to raise more money for her relief work. Violence against African Americans in the South following disbanding of the Freedmen’s Bureau convinced Harriett to abandon the Savannah project, and she returned to private life in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 1877, Harriett and Louisa Matilda moved to Washington, D.C., where Harriett died in 1897. She was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.