February 11, 2010

Birth of Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs was born on February 11, 1813.* To be more precise, Harriet Jacobs was born enslaved in Edenton, North Carolina. Both her parents, also slaves, were mulattoes — meaning that Jacobs was, technically, half-white (though no less a slave).

At 12 years old, Jacobs was inherited by a 5-year old girl. An attractive young woman, Jacobs was pursued by the girl's father, Dr. James Norcom. He didn't bother to hide his lust, which even his wife knew about. His wife punished her (rather than her husband) by working her extra hard and flogging her often. To avoid her brutal owner, Jacobs had an affair with another white man named Samuel Sawyer (who later became a Congressman). With him, she had two children, Joseph and Louisa. These children were born slaves, owned by the Norcroms, though they were three-quarters white. Jacobs's domestic situation only got worse, so she escaped in 1835.

But she didn't go far. She stayed in a crawlspace above the home of her grandmother, where she watched her children grow for seven years. In 1842, she made her way north. Dr. Norcrom threatened to sell Joseph and Louisa so Sawyer purchased them and gave them their freedom. In need of money, Jacobs found herself in the employ of none other than Nathaniel Parker Willis (more on him here).

Years later, Jacobs would tell her story in the book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl using the pseudonym Linda Brent.

*Like many who were born enslaved, Jacobs was unsure of her own birthdate and scholars have disputed this information. Her gravestone offers February 11, 1815, but there is little evidence to support the winter birth. For more on the dispute, see this article by Mary Maillard or this article by Scott Korb (who first notified me of the discrepancies).


  1. February 11 is indeed Harriet Jacobs’ birthday. Not only is the date inscribed on her grave at Mt. Auburn, her birthday is mentioned in a letter written by her daughter (in a private collection). I love your blog!

    Mary Maillard
    Documentary Editor

  2. Strange comment... I'm wondering if you read any of Scott Korb's writings on Jacobs (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/06/harriet-jacobss-first-assignment/) - he has brought up some legitimate questions about Jacobs's supposed birthdate. As an enslaved person, these sorts of details were rarely documented and it's possible her daughter made up the date. Here on my blog, however, I have not questioned that date so I'm surprised to see your comment.

    1. I did see Scott Korb’s piece and also your Twitter question to him. This post was intended to confirm the date in your blog in case you had doubts.

    2. Mary: The doubts are quite valid - and justified. The date is standing on rather flimsy historical legs. I think Mr. Korb's work using Jacobs's own words (rather than posthumous comments from her daughter) has proven that we should be at least suspicious of the date. Still, for the purpose of this blog, I said nothing about the brewing controversy so I was a bit surprised by your comment.