NC Women: Harriet Jacobs and slave women

Slave Market
This pen-and-ink drawing and watercolor by Henry Byam Martin depicts a slave market in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1833. An inscription on the original reads “Charleston S.C. 4th March 1833 ‘The land of the free & home of the brave.'”
Martin, Henry Byam, “Slave market,” Digital Public Library of America.

Welcome back. Last month, in the inaugural blog of this series on women in North Carolina, NC Women: Edenton Tea Party, we learned about Penelope Barker and the women of Edenton during the Revolutionary War. The first recorded civil disobedience of women in the new world, right here in our backyard. We have seen that the recorded history of women is often clouded by our second class status, and heard Abigail Adams’s plea to her husband to “remember the ladies.” This month we will be moving along to the post Revolutionary War/Antebellum period in US history and the story of Black women’s bondage and escape from slavery — talk about getting the short end of the stick. We will focus on the most famous slave narrative written by a woman, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs, who was also a native of Edenton NC. It is painful enough Incidents coverto learn of the struggles of white women and the lack of rights, education, and say in their lives or in their communities. But the struggles and pain that were forced upon slave and free Black women were altogether excruciating both physically and mentally. I don’t think there are words capable of describing their situation.

The new United States of America was rapidly changing in the late 18th – early 19th centuries. The men were busy with a little thing called governance. Big decisions needed to be made now that we were free from British Imperialism. Would the Founding Fathers keep the Articles of Confederation, or was it better to scrap the whole thing and come up with a new compromise? How was the balance of power going to be held? States vs. Federal. Who was going to have the right to vote? We just fought the war for Independence on the backs of non-propertied men — a class not traditionally able to vote. How could the Founding Fathers deny those who fought against taxation without representation the right to vote in the new United States? Quite the conundrum. There was a mental shift going down, social norms were being questioned, and white women were able to enjoy some of the benefits of those shifting ideals. Black women were still chattel.

The society became focused on raising generations of children to be patriots. White women of the upper class were sent to schools so that they could marry well, and properly raise the next generation of male patriots. The door to education would remain closed to the majority of Black girls, especially those living under the chains of slavery. There were the few lucky free Black children that the Quakers educated, starting in the early 1800’s. They used the same Quaker schoolhouses that the white children of the community used but were forced to attend school in the evening so as not to conflict with work and the white children’s education. From an advertisement in the Raleigh Register, 1808,

“He will, at the same time, open an EVENING SCHOOL for the purpose of instructing the Children of Colour, as he intends, for the accommodation of some of his Employers, to exclude all Children of Colour from his Day School. The Evening School will commence at an hour by Sun. When the white children leave the House, those of colour will take their places, and continue until ten o’clock.”<1>

Though in the early 1800’s free Black children had opportunity to acquire education, that luxury was not extended to their enslaved brethren. Yet as with every generality there are always exceptions. Some slave children were taught to read and write by their white owners, most commonly by the women of the house. Harriet Jacobs was educated by the mistress of her original owner. But like all things in the slave world, her education would come to an end when she was willed to a new master; all of her life would be thrown into turmoil.

1804 Haiti
Hidden Colors documentary series

Educating any slave was not looked on favorably by society during the turn of the 19th century, but would soon become straight up dangerous in 1831. The fear of educated Blacks had been growing among slaveholders for decades, particularly after the Haitian Revolt of 1804, during which many European masters were poisoned and the former slaves took over the island. The general assembly of 1830-31 explain this fear in the preamble to a law forbidding teaching slaves: “Whereas the teaching of slaves to read and write has a tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds and to produce insurrection and rebellion,” <2> Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Virginia reinforced plantation owners’ fear of a slave rebellion. influencing the NC legislature to enact this law as well as other slaveholding states to pass similar restrictions upon education.

“Any free person, who shall hereafter teach or attempt to teach, any slave within the State to read or write, the use of figures excepted, or shall give or sell to such slave or slaves any books or pamphlets, shall be liable to indictment in any court of record in this State having jurisdiction thereof; and upon conviction, shall, at the discretion of the court, if a white man or women, be fined no less than one hundred dollars, nor more than two hundred dollars, or imprisoned; and if a free person of color, shall be fined, imprisoned, or whipped, at the discretion of the court, not exceeding thirty nine lashes, nor less than twenty lashes.” <3>

This law represented the suppression of a people by keeping them ignorant of the world and the possibility of a better life, mental chains to accompany the physical.

Harriet Jacobs was born in February of 1811, in Edenton NC. As with all black children, her status was tied to her mother’s status. Her mother Dehlilah was a slave, like her mother before her. The law regarding the status of children in slaveholding states created one of the most horrendous effects of the slave system. It was not uncommon for slave owners, who believed that black women were their property, to rape them. Husbands, fathers, and children of the black women would occasionally be made to hear the atrocity with no recourse to justice or help, which is bad enough but it could get worse. The women would often become pregnant — remember, no birth control — with the master’s children. Now here comes one of the most twisted behaviors of slaveholders, the master’s own children would become slaves, following the status of their mothers. There was real wealth in the number of slaves one owned. The masters would rape the women — sometimes purposely to impregnate — and put their own children into slavery, therefore creating more wealth for himself. Let that sink in.

The mistresses of the home were not apt to halt such behavior. “White women rarely acknowledged white man’s sexual relations with black women, although Mary Boykin Chesnut of South Carolina noted, ‘Like patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and concubines and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children.’” <4> There are multiple records of black women wanting to kill their own baby girls to save them from the horrors of being an enslaved woman. Harriet Jacobs writes in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl about the fear of having a female child, “When they told me my new-born babe was a girl, my heart was heavier than it had ever been before. Slavery is terrible for men; but it is far more terrible for women. Superadded to the burden common to all, they have wrongs, and sufferings, and mortifications peculiarly their own.” <5>

Harriet Jacobs Reward
The reward ad taken out by James Norcom — Harriets’ tormentor and master — when Harriet went missing. He spent a lot of his own money and time searching for her. He was slightly obsessed. The average rate of reward was $25.

Harriet was always afraid that her master, James Norcom, who had an unhealthy obsession with her, would sell off her children just to hurt her further, also a common practice among slave owners. Remember that slaves were a great source of wealth, and even those owners who had the best intentions of keeping families together could fall on hard times and choose to sell them off to the highest bidder. “Windsor slaveholder Thomas Turner explained to a prospective buyer how he ‘should be very sorry to separate them [Hannah and her five children], or sell them to a person likely soon to separate them.’ But Turner had debts to settle, and he was forced to sell mother and children separately.”<6> Black women not only created wealth for their masters through giving birth to more property but could fetch a higher price at the auction block. Auctioneers would surround a woman with all of her children (who were still owned by the same master) to show how prolific a breeder she was, thus fetching a higher price for her head. Abominable.

Husbands, wives, and families
From the New York Public Library  in the collection  Five hundred thousand strokes for freedom ; a series of anti-slavery tracts, of which half a million are now first issued by the friends of the Negro

Harriet Jacobs was a strong black woman. Due to her first master’s wife, she was given a hand up comparative to most slaves, because she could read and write. Her grandmother was a respected black woman in the community (because of her skills as a baker) who had purchased her freedom and even bought herself a small home. Harriet was finally able to escape to the north using the underground railroad, where her children had been sent by their father Samuel Tredwell Sawyer. She then went on to become a major voice in the abolitionist movement as well as helping freed blacks in the south during Reconstruction, all with her daughter — Louisa Matilda Jacobs — at her side.

Jacobs’ story is one of the few stories of black women’s enslavement to live on today. Her account of the life of a female slave is hard to read at points. It is true what they say: reading encourages empathy. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl made me think hard about the situation of the African American community not just within slavery — which was an extreme case — but up to today. Since Africans were brought to the North American continent, their family and community structures have been systematically shredded. With the hollowing out of black neighborhoods because of freeway systems and gentrification. The suppression of black ownership through restrictions on loans and mortgages – even for the African-American men who fought in WWII but were denied mortgages even with the GI bill. The oppression of the Black community through stop and frisk policies and blatant institutional racism within some police forces. And most reminiscent of the slave system, today’s massive incarceration rates and the expansion of private prisons. We may have outlawed the open practice of slavery, but have we really made amends?

Note: there are some links in this blog post that send you to the wonderful online streaming service Kanopy, if you do not already have an account it is easy to set up with your Fontana Regional Library card and enjoy 10 movies rentals each month on us!


  1.  Tise, Larry E. “Confronting the Issue of Slavery.” The North Carolina Experience: an Interpretive and Documentary History, by Lindley S. Butler and Alan D. Watson, Univ. of North Carolina Pr., 1988, pp. 194–216.
  2. Acts passed by the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina [1830-1831], Retrieved from North Carolina Digital Collections on 2/16/19,
  3. See footnote 2
  4. Tise, Larry E. “Confronting the Issue of Slavery.” The North Carolina Experience: an Interpretive and Documentary History, by Lindley S. Butler and Alan D. Watson, Univ. of North Carolina Pr., 1988, pp. 194–216.
  5. Jacobs, Harriet A., et al. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself. Harvard University Press, 1987.
  6. “A Hardier Mold: Women, Family , and Society, 1800-1860.” North Carolina Women: Making History, by Margaret Supplee. Smith et al., Univ of North Carolina Pr, 2007, pp. 75–102.

For a really sobering look at the laws concerning Black people in the state of NC. An Act Concerning Slaves and Free Persons of Color.

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