Harriet Jacobs: A Pivotal Time in Upstate New York
Updated: Mar 24, 2021
(photo used with permission)
Harriet Jacobs, born around 1815, in Edenton, North Carolina, spent two years in Rochester, New York. Here, she stayed with Quakers Amy and Isaac Post (who had attended the 1816 Farmington Quaker Meetinghouse until 1845). The Posts and the social movements that Harriet Jacobs found in Rochester contributed greatly to her decision to write a book about her life, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Today, “Incidents” is known as the only first-person narrative written by a formerly enslaved Black American woman. She wrote about growing up enslaved in Edenton, North Carolina; becoming increasingly threatened by the lecherous head of the household, James Norcom; and escaping by hiding in her grandmother’s attic for almost 7 years before her family could arrange a way out via the Maritime Underground Railroad. She also wrote about the discrimination she faced after she moved North.
Her brother John escaped from slavery in 1838 when he accompanied his enslaver, Samuel Sawyer, on a trip to New York. This very much simplifies a set of complicated relationships (Sawyer was the biological father to her two children, Louisa and Joseph: See below to learn more). The point for this short piece is that by 1844, Harriet and John Jacobs lived in Boston, where John became involved in abolitionist work.
John followed Frederick Douglass in a move to Rochester. He arranged for Harriet’s daughter Louisa to attend the Young Ladies Domestic Seminary in Clinton, NY, an integrated and, for the time, progressive boarding school. Harriet moved to Rochester to be closer to them, where she lived with a prominent Quaker family:
I passed nearly a year in the family of Isaac and Amy Post, practical believers in the Christian doctrine of human brotherhood. They measured a man’s worth by his character, not by his complexion. The memory of those bellowed and honored friends will remain with me to my latest hour.
credits to Rochester Public Library- Local History Division
Living with the Posts meant exposure to every social movement swirling around Rochester—women’s rights, abolitionism, temperance, and even spiritualism. Their home at 36 Sophia Street welcomed activists in all these realms, as well as fugitive slaves on their way to Canada. (A historic plaque marks where the house stood, now Plymouth Ave., the site of Hochstein School of Music).
Harriet often staffed an Anti-Slavery Reading Room established by the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society in the same building that Douglass published the North Star newspaper. This gave her the chance to read abolitionist books and periodicals, something she previously had little time to do, and meet other like-minded people who came by.
In 1850, Harriet left Rochester, but her connections with the city, and especially the Posts, persevered. She worked as a nursemaid for the family of then-famous author Nathaniel Parker Willis and his wife Cornelia, first in New York City and then in Cornwall in Orange County. In 1852, when her former enslavers, the Norcoms, threatened her freedom, Cornelia purchased Harriet’s legal freedom from them. Harriet later wrote about her conflicted feelings about the need for a financial transaction surrounding her personal liberty, but she also felt the lifting of a tremendous burden. That change in status led her to consider a suggestion from Amy Post to write about her life. She responded to Post in 1852:
Your proposal to me has been thought over and over again but not without some painful remembrances….
Easier said than done. She did not tell the Willises about her project and wrote in snatches at night after long days caring for the children. Over the years, she used Post as her sounding board. Several letters survive (available at the University of Rochester) in which she shares her challenges in putting pen to paper. In 1854, for example, she wrote:
Just now the poor Book is in its Chrysalis state and though I can never make it a butterfly, I am satisfied to have it creep meekly among some of the humbler bugs….
Finally, five years later, on June 21, 1857, she could write to Post:
I have my dear friend—striven faithfully to give a true and just account of my own life in Slavery….
The struggle to publish the book took almost as long as writing it, but Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl came out in April 1861. Harriet knew she had written something important. Usually reticent in public, she actively promoted the book in abolitionist circles. In 1862, William Lloyd Garrison, editor of the Liberator, asked her to report on “Life Among the Contrabands”: that is, the many refugees who escaped slavery by coming across Union lines. Her article about conditions in Washington and nearby Alexandria, Virginia, inspired many Northerners to engage in relief efforts. In fact, the New York Yearly Meeting of Friends asked Harriet to work in Alexandria, where she joined fellow agent Julia Wilbur, who was sponsored by the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society, from 1863 to 1865.
Harriet Jacobs connected with Quaker principles through her friendship with Amy Post and work with the New York Friends. Interestingly, in Incidents, while she used pseudonyms for most of the people she knew personally (including herself as author), she identified the Posts by their real names.
To learn more
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (various versions exist, including a free text online through the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the South.
Harriet Jacobs: A Life by Jean Fagan Yellin
The Harriet Jacobs Papers, Volumes I and II, edited by Jean Fagan Yellin
Radical Friend: Amy Kirby Post and Her Activist Worlds by Nancy Hewitt