Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook

By Denise D. Knight | Go to book overview
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HARRIET A. JACOBS (LINDA BRENT) (C. 1813-1897)

Terry J. Martin


BIOGRAPHY

Harriet Ann Jacobs, the great-granddaughter of a white South Carolina planter, was born a mulatto slave in Edenton, South Carolina, in 1813. Her mother, Delilah, was, in Jacobs's words, "noble and womanly[,] . . . a slave merely in name" (7). Her father, Daniel Jacobs, was a carpenter who, though himself a slave, was permitted to hire out his time. Her brother, John, was born two years later. Raised in a comfortable home, Jacobs was unaware that she was a slave until she was six years old, when, upon the death of her mother, she was placed in the care of her mistress, Margaret Horniblow. Horniblow taught her to read, write, and sew, promoted her Christian faith, and raised her "almost like a mother" ( Jacobs7). Jacobs expected to be emancipated by her. Yet when Jacobs was twelve years old, Horniblow died and bequeathed Jacobs to her niece Mary Matilda Norcom.

As Mary's property, Jacobs came under the power of Mary's father, Dr. James Norcom, who ceaselessly cajoled and threatened Jacobs to submit to him sexually. Jacobs turned in desperation to a sympathetic white neighbor, the young lawyer Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, who she hoped would buy her and free her and with whom she eventually bore two children, Joseph and Louisa Matilda. Norcom permitted Jacobs's children to stay with her grandmother Molly Horniblow, a manumitted slave who owned a house and sold baked goods for a living. However, Norcom refused to sell Jacobs, and when she overheard him plotting to send her children to his son's farm to be broken in and kept to prevent her from escaping, Jacobs took to hiding in the hopes that Norcom would give up his plan and eventually sell her children (whom she thought to purchase through an agent). After taking temporary refuge with both black and white

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