During the Civil War and Reconstruction, Harriet Jacobs committed herself to assisting the African-American refugees in the overcrowded contraband camps outside of Washington, DC. As a former slave and as the author of the popular slave narrative and autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself, Jacobs was in a unique position to raise funds and gather support from Northern abolitionists for the fugitive slaves. Despite her years of leadership in freedpeople’s relief, she is best known for her autobiography. Published in 1861, this volume earned a broad readership among abolitionist women and men, but it has never been more popular than it is today. Though neglected for much of the twentieth century, as a result of the erroneous assumption that the white abolitionist LYDIA MARIA CHILD was the author, the past 20 years has seen the book’s reemergence. It is now considered a classic of antebellum American literature and has been acknowledged as “the most important slave narrative by an African-American woman” (Yellin 1993, 627).
Born a slave in North Carolina, Harriet Jacobs lived in bondage in the town of Edenton until 1835 when she escaped and went into hiding at her grandmother’s home. The single mother of two spent the next two decades as a fugitive in both the South and North. In 1849, she became involved in antislavery activism in Rochester, New York, where her brother John Jacobs was an antislavery orator. She worked in the Anti-Slavery Office Reading Room, an establishment managed by her brother. Once the Fugitive Slave Act became law in 1850, she moved to New York City, where her former North Carolina owners once again attempted