How 15-Year-Old Harriet Jacobs Fought Off Sexual Advances From Her Enslaver For Years Before Escaping

Her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, is her best-known work. Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the first woman to write a fleeing slave narrative in the United States, was one of the earliest open talks concerning enslaved women’s sexual harassment and abuse. Harriet Tubman, born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813, had to fight her slaveowner’s constant sexual approaches from an early age before being able to flee to the north.

Harriet Jacobs was the daughter of slaves Delilah and Daniel Jacobs. As a kid, she was not exposed to the terrible realities of slavery. “[We] lived together in a comfortable home,” she wrote under the pseudonym “Linda Brent” in her memoirs.

“And, despite the fact that we were all slaves, I was so lovingly shielded that I never imagined I was a piece of merchandise,” Harriet remarked. She didn’t have to grieve for long after her mother died since she was relocated into the home of her mother’s mistress, who taught her to read and sew and took excellent care of her.

Harriet’s happiness was short-lived, however, when the kind mistress died. Harriet, who was 12 at the time, was given to the mistress’ niece. However, because the niece was only three years old, Harriet’s true owner became the niece’s father, Dr. James Norcom, an Edenton physician. That’s when Harriet’s problems began.

Harriet battled to resist Norcom’s sexual advances from the time she entered his home in 1825 until she escaped enslavement in 1842. According to one story on PBS, Harriet initially realized Norcom was a sexual menace when he began whispering “foul obscenities” in her ear. He ultimately started coming on strong, but Harriet, who was still in her teens at the time, turned him down. Norcom even built a cottage for Harriet four miles outside of town, as his wife began to question his actions.

Harriet later inquired of Norcom about marrying a free Black man, but Norcom declined. Harriet had a sexual relationship with a neighbor, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, a young White lawyer, as she became more eager to achieve her release. By the time she was 20 years old, Harriet and Sawyer had two children, Joseph and Louisa. Norcom persisted in harassing her.

“I knew what I did, and I did it with intentional calculation,” Harriet wrote about her decision to accept Sawyer as her lover. “Having a lover who has no authority over you,” Harriet wrote, “is something akin to liberation.”

Harriet explained that it was a longing for independence, not a White lover, that drove her to have an affair with Sawyer. “I knew nothing would irritate Dr. Flint [Harriet renamed Norcom as Flint in her memoirs] more than to learn that I preferred another…. I expected him to avenge himself by selling me, and I was confident that my friend, Mr. Sands [Sawyer], would buy me.”

Harriet thought that by appearing to have escaped after giving birth to her children, Norcom would be pressured to sell her children to the father. Harriet managed to flee in June 1835, after seven years of mistreatment. She spent some time with neighbors before settling into a cramped crawlspace over a porch built by her grandmother, a free Black lady, and uncle.

PBS said, “The space was nine feet long and seven feet broad.” “The slanted ceiling, which was barely three feet high at one end, prevented her from turning while laying down without striking her shoulder. There were rats and mice crawling all over her, and there was no light or ventilation.”

Harriet, on the other hand, stayed for the next seven years, reading the Bible, stitching, and keeping an eye on her children who she could see playing outside through a peephole she had drilled. She also wrote to Norcom on multiple occasions to keep him guessing about her whereabouts. By 1837, Sawyer had been elected to the United States House of Representatives, having purchased the children he had with Harriet as she had requested. He relocated to Washington, D.C., but the children were not emancipated.

Harriet’s daughter was in Brooklyn, New York, when she escaped to the north by boat in 1842. Her father Sawyer had sent her there to work as a house servant. Harriet relocated to the north in order to reclaim her daughter. And she’d be successful. Harriet reconnected with her daughter in Brooklyn after a tumultuous life as a fugitive slave, and subsequently found a home for her two children in Boston. She then worked as a nursemaid before opening an antislavery reading room and bookstore in Rochester with her brother, John S. Jacobs, above the headquarters of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper, The North Star.

During this time, she met Amy Post, a Quaker reformer who, among other things, encouraged Harriet to write about her servitude. Harriet Tubman’s autobiography, edited by white abolitionist Lydia Maria Child and published in 1852, did not shy away from recounting the horrible stories of imprisoned men and women being sexually abused or the anguish enslaved mothers felt after losing a child.

Harriet’s autobiography was uncovered during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and will not be validated by researchers until 1981, despite accolades from the antislavery press in the United States and the United Kingdom. It was frequently regarded as a work of fiction at the time. According to PBS, Harriet became legally free before her death on March 7, 1897, after a friend arranged her purchase. Before the Civil War, she was involved in the abolitionist movement. She gathered money for Black refugees and sought to improve the lives of enslaved persons who had been released while the war was still going on.

Harriet had settled in Washington, D.C. with her daughter by the mid-1880s. The last ten years of her life are largely unknown. At the time of her death, she was 84 years old.

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