Harriet Jacobs was the first woman to author a fugitive slave narrative in the United States. Yet she was never as celebrated as Ellen Craft, a runaway from Georgia, who had become internationally famous for the daring escape from slavery that she and her husband, William, engineered in 1848, during which Ellen impersonated a male slaveholder attended by her husband in the role of faithful slave. (1860), the thrilling narrative of the Crafts' flight from Savannah to Philadelphia, was published under both of their names but has always been attributed to William's hand. Harriet Jacobs's autobiography, by contrast, was "written by herself," as the subtitle to the book proudly states. Even more astonishing than the Crafts' story, represents no less profoundly an African American woman's resourcefulness, courage, and dauntless quest for freedom. Yet nowhere in Jacobs's autobiography, not even on its title page, did its author disclose her own identity. Instead, Jacobs called herself "Linda Brent" and masked the important places and persons in her narrative in the manner of a novelist, renaming Norcom "Dr. Flint" and Sawyer "Mr. Sands" in her narrative. Despite her longing to speak out frankly and fully, Jacobs dreaded writing candidly about the obscenities of slavery, fear that disclosing these "foul secrets" would impute to her the guilt that should have been reserved for those, like Norcom, who hid behind such secrets. "I had no motive for secrecy on my own account," Jacobs insists in her preface to Incidents, but given the harrowing and sensational story she had to tell, the one-time fugitive felt she had little alternative but to shield herself from a readership whose understanding and empathy she could not take for granted.
From 1862 to 1866 Jacobs devoted herself to relief efforts in and around Washington, D.C., among former slaves who had become refugees of the war. With her daughter Jacobs founded a school in Alexandria, Virginia, which lasted from 1863 to 1865, when both mother and daughter returned south to Savannah, Georgia, to engage in further relief work among the freedmen and freedwomen. The spring of 1867 found Jacobs back in Edenton, actively promoting the welfare of the ex-slaves and reflecting in her correspondence on "those I loved" and "their unfaltering love and devotion toward myself and [my] children." This sense of dedication and solidarity with those who had been enslaved kept Jacobs at work in the South until racist violence ultimately drove her and Louisa back to the Cambridge, Massachusetts, where in 1870 she opened a boarding house. By the mid-1880s Jacobs had settled with Louisa in Washington, D.C. Little is known about the last decade of her life. Harriet Jacobs died in Washington, D.C. on March 7, 1897.
“Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, ed
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(title page) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.