Harriet Jacobs

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The “Underground Railroad” was neither underground nor a railroad, but was in fact a term used to describe a network of secret routes, hiding places, and people who helped slaves escape from the South and gain their freedom in the Northern United States or Canada. The term Underground Railroad was in common use by the 1840’s and was thought to have originated in the 1830’s. The website National Underground Railroad Freedom Center offers three suggestions on the origination of the term: “One story says that in 1831 a fugitive slave named Tice David escaped from Kentucky to safer ground in Sandusky, in northern Ohio. When David's master looked in vain for him in Ripley, just across the Ohio River, he is said to have commented, "The nigger must have gone off on an underground railroad." Another version explains that the term came into use among slave hunters in Pennsylvania who experienced similar frustrations. Yet a third story places the origin in Washington DC, in 1839, when a fugitive slave, after being tortured, allegedly claimed that he was to have been sent north, where "the railroad ran underground all the way to Boston." (Blight) No one can say for sure the exact origin of the term, but it was commonly used by the 1840’s and is a part of American history. Harriet Jacobs was one of the more than 100,000 slaves who used the Underground Railroad to escape to freedom, and Jacob’s story of slavery, and escape to freedom is both inspiring and tragic. Jacob’s escape from the bondage of slavery was a two part process that lasted 17 years and can be broken up into; her immediate escape from the plantation and Dr. Norcom, and her time in the North. Harriet Jacobs was born a slave on February 11, 1813 in Edenton North Carolina, and died a free woman on March 7, 1897 in Washington D.C. at the age of 84. Jacobs was described in a poster offering a reward for her capture as; “an intelligent, bright, mulatto girl, named Harriet, 21 years of age. Five feet, four inches high. Dark eyes, and black hair inclined to curl; but it can be made straight.” (Jacobs) While no picture may exist of her in her younger years, a picture of her in her later years shows her light mulatto complexion: Harriet Jacobs considered the first 6 years of her life rather pleasant, and it was not until her mother died, when she was 6 years old that she first did learn from talk around her that she was in fact a slave. Harriet describes her early days as happy ones where “No toilsome or disagreeable duties were placed upon me.” (Jacobs) During her early childhood Harriet was taught to read and write and was generally well cared for. Harriet’s first master died when she was 12 years old and she was willed to her mistress’s sister’s 5 year old daughter; Mary Matilda Norcom. Harriet’s duties on the Norcom plantation were to serve as a maid to the young Mary Matilda, general housework and sewing. When Harriet was about at the age of 15 she became the object of Dr. Norcom’s obsession, and was subject to his unwanted sexual attention and mental abuse. Harriet’s abuse began at first with mere words and hand written letters, but soon manifested in a physical nature. Early in her slavery on the Norcom plantation, when the sexual harassment had just begun Harriet describes how she felt about Dr. Norcom stating; “O how I despised him! I thought how glad I should be, if some day when he walked the earth, it would open and swallow him up, and disencumber the world of a plague.” (Jacobs) Harriet Jacobs was a strong willed, intelligent, principled woman, who was able to keep her wits about her at times of great stress, no better testament to her personality can be said than how she herself describes her attitude in regard to her predicament; “The war of my life had begun; and although one of God’s most powerless creatures, I resolved never to be conquered. Alas for me!” (Jacobs) To escape the unwanted and frequent sexual advances of Dr. Norcom Harriet entered in...
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