Harriet Jacobs: An enslaved girl’s battle to avoid sexual abuse

Harriet Jacobs

Nearly 200 years before #MeToo, before #blacklivesmattered for more than free labor, a young enslaved girl maneuvered minefields of sex, exploitation, and condemnation in her search for freedom.

Harriet Jacob's battle began as a pubescent teenager fighting the advances of a country doctor who deceived his way into owning her. It would turn into a four-decade-long cat-and-mouse chase between the obsessive slaveholder and a woman determined to chart her destiny.

Ms. Jacobs was born in 1813, in Edenton, N.C., the daughter of an enslaved biracial father and an enslaved black mother. She lived with a mistress, Margaret Horniblow, who treated her like a daughter but owned her as a slave. Horniblow taught Jacobs to read, write, and sew. Historians believe Horniblow emancipated Jacobs upon her death. But the doctor, James Norcom, changed Horniblow’s will to bequeath Ms. Jacobs to his 3-year-old daughter, essentially giving himself control over the teenager.

Fearful of the doctor's abusive advances, Ms. Jacobs began an affair with a white lawyer, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, hoping to protect herself and rebuff the doctor. She and Sawyer had two children together.

"I knew nothing would enrage (Norcom) so much as to know that I favored another. … I thought he would revenge himself by selling me, and I was sure my friend, (Sawyer), would buy me," she later wrote in her autobiography.

When the plot didn't work, she concocted a plan to fake an escape up north by living in a coffin-like crawlspace in the attic of her grandmother's house nearby. She watched her children grew up in the doctor's home from a distance. She lived in the tiny attic for seven years, writing letters to the doctor to make it appear she lived far away. She hoped he would leave her alone and let her children's father buy their freedom.

Eventually, Sawyer, who won election to the United States House of Representatives in 1837, purchased the children from Norcom, but did not emancipate them. After finally escaping to the north in 1842, Ms. Jacob went about finding the children, who were loaned out to work in New York by their father.

For the next 20 years, she and her children lived as fugitive slaves as Norcom continued to pursue her. She later became involved in the abolitionist movement. In her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, she tackles the subject of sexual abuse of enslaved women and defends her affair with Sawyer as necessary to protect herself.

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