Harriet Jacobs: A Voice for the Enslaved

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet A. Jacobs

With the upcoming Juneteenth holiday, we are reminded of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of slavery in the United States. Though the proclamation went into effect in 1863, roughly 250,000 African Americans remained enslaved for another two years. Initially, the Emancipation Proclamation could not be enforced in places still controlled by Confederates, including the westernmost Confederate state of Texas. Enslaved people in this state learned of their freedom on June 19th, 1865, a day that we continue to commemorate as the Juneteenth holiday we know today.

To recognize Juneteenth this year, our Special Collections here at ECU would like to highlight the voice of enslaved woman Harriet Jacobs, which holds special significance here in eastern North Carolina.

On February 11th, 1813, Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina. Though she managed to flee her enslaver in her teen years, she did not escape to the North and reunite with her children until roughly 1842. The years following eventually led her to joining a group of reformers in Rochester, New York, through which she met and became friends with abolitionist Quaker Amy Post. It was Amy Post, amongst others, who encouraged Jacobs to write her life’s story as a way to aid in the fight for emancipation.

Though she faced many hurdles, Jacobs published her autobiography titled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1861. With the help of her editor, abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, Jacobs wrote what some consider to be the most comprehensive slavery account written by a woman. Detailing her experiences with racism, enslavement as a mother, and sexual abuse, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is still used in the classroom today to study slave narratives and the real-life experiences of enslaved people during the 1800s.

The North Carolina Rare Collection houses two first-edition copies of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl that are available for research and educational use. Please use the links below to find the book in our library catalog and explore additional resources related to Harriet Jacobs and Juneteenth.

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