March 7, 2011

Jacobs: Patient in tribulation

At the very beginning of the Civil War, in 1861, the book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl drew new attention to the plight of enslaved people. The book's author, "Linda Brent," exposed the world to the sexual harassment and abuse inflicted upon enslaved women in particular. Brent was really Harriet Ann Jacobs, and the incidents she recounted were quite true. Her cruel slave master made efforts to rape her; instead, she is impregnated by a white neighbor. Incidentally, she wrote the book while in the employ of writer/editor Nathaniel Parker Willis (who she determined was a Southern sympathizer).

During the war, Jacobs and her daughter Louisa worked to help escaped enslaved people in the Washington, D.C. area. As the war neared completion, she particularly sought to educate blacks, and a school was even named in her honor. In the period after the war, however, race tensions in the South pushed her to move to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she established a boarding-house. Many of her ambitions to help ease race relations fell apart and she fell into personal financial distress. More or less homeless, without employment, and suffering from illness and age, Louisa turned to friends and fellow abolitionists for hand-outs.

In the fall of 1896, Jacobs fell from her wheelchair and injured her hip. She never recovered and she died on March 7, 1897, at the age of 84. She was buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, where her tombstone reads:

Patient in tribulation, fervent
in spirit serving the lord.

At the time of her death, Jacobs was already mostly forgotten. Her slave narrative would not be rediscovered until the next century. Even so, some remembered her inspiration. Francis Grimké (brother of the famous Grimké sisters Sarah and Angelina) delivered an elegy in which he said: "She rose above the dead level of mediocrity, like the mountain peaks that shoot above the mountain range... She was no reed shaken by the wind, vacillating, easily moved from a position. She did her own thinking; had opinions of her own, and held to them with great tenacity."

*Much of the information for this post comes from Harriet Jacobs: A Life by Jean Fagan Yellin (2004). Jacobs's book is also available in a very inexpensive edition, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

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