She was born a slave, but was so shielded and lived so comfortably, that she wrote “I was born a slave; but I never knew till six years of happy childhood had passed away.” Her mother died when Harriet was only 6, and she was sent to live with her mother’s mistress, who taught her to read, write, and sew. Harriet was sold to a physician when she was 11, and, after loosing her father as well, Harriet became deeply unhappy. The doctor made Harriet miserable with his unwanted advances. The doctor’s wife was vindictive and jealous. To Harriet’s knowledge, the doctor had fathered nearly a dozen children to slave mothers. Harriet would not be one of them.
The doctor refused to let Harriet marry a freed black carpenter, and she soon began a relationship with a white lawyer with whom she would have two children. Meanwhile, the doctor was fed up with Harriet, and she was moved to his brother’s plantation. When Harriet heard of plans for her children to be sent to join her on the plantation, she immediately began making plans to escape. If she was gone, the children would stay with Harriet’s grandmother, and be spared life as plantation slaves.
“Whatever slavery might do to me,” she wrote, “it could not shackle my children. If I fell a sacrifice, my little ones were saved.”
So she escaped to friends homes, then eventually to her grandmother’s home. She hid in a small space above a store room. It was seven feet wide, nine feet long, and only three feet high. She could not even stand up in it, but there she stayed for seven years. She was able to hear and see glimpses of her children. The father of her children finally purchased them, as well as Harriet’s brother, with the promise to free them. She and her children eventually made their way to New York, where a sympathetic friend bought Harriet in order to set her free once and for all.
She began writing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1853. When efforts to publish the book failed, she had it published “for the author” in 1861. The book was published in Britain the following year.
Harriet went on to teach, nurse troops, and run a boarding house. She died on March 7, 1897.
What most impresses me about Harriet Ann Jacobs is her resilience. She remained in hiding for seven years– in a space where she could not even stand up! During that entire time, she never revealed herself to her children. When she finally did gain her freedom, she did not waste it. She served others and shared her story.
And that makes her one heck of a SHEro.
Learn more about Harriet Ann Jacobs here