Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life (2004)
Yellin, Jean Fagan. Harriet Jacobs: A Life. NY: Basic Civitas Books, 2004.
She did not know. Papa's pride, Mama's darling, Grandmother's joy -she did not know she was a slave. Not until she was six, and Mama died. And really not even then. But later, when she was willed to Little Miss, she had to find out. Hatty was a slave.
Harriet Jacobs was a born a slave in Edenton, Chowan County, North Carolina, in 1813, twenty-four years after the adoption of the Constitution had firmly established slavery in the newly formed United States. It would be seven years before slavery's spread into new states would be limited by the Missouri Compromise, and a half century before Emancipation. At her birth, there was no reason to think that baby Hatty would live out her life as anything but a slave-yet she not only freed herself and her children, she became an activist and an author, a runaway whose narrative of her life was championed by the abolitionists and feminists and was a weapon in the struggle for emancipation. During the Civil War she went back south, working as a relief worker and an advocate on an advocate on behalf of the black refugees behind the Union lines in Alexandria and later in Savannah, telling their story in the northern press. When racist violence engulfed the South, she retreated to Massachusetts and then to Washington, D.C., where she died in 1897. Harriet Jacobs was an heroic woman who lived in an heroic time. Committing herself to freedom, she made her life representative of the struggle for liberation.
Harriet Jacobs was born in Edenton because her grandmother Molly had been bought and brought there before the Revolution by a local tavern owner. Originally peopled by the Chowan tribe and settled early, Edenton was an important port from 1771 to 1776, when North Carolina was a British colony. Trade boomed: 828 ships cleared the port, a quarter of them bound for New England and nearly half for the West Indies. They carried exports from the pine forests-barrel staves, shingles, tar, and deerskins; from the farms-corn, cane, tobacco, cattle, and hogs; and from the water-fish. The largest imports were rum, molasses, salt, and linen. After the Revolution, however, prosperity ended. In 1783 a traveler, eyeing the derelict ships in the harbor, doubted that Edenton would ever reclaim its trade. "It appears that most vessels entering the Sound pass by the town." He was decidedly unimpressed by Edenton's inhabitants-"The white men are all the time complaining that the blacks will not work, and they themselves do nothing.... We lived at a regular tavern where...half a dozen negros were running about the house all day, and nothing was atended to, unless one saw to it himself." It was to just such an inn, Horniblow's Tavern, that the child Molly, Harriet Jacob's grandmother, was taken as a slave.
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