104 pages 3 hours read

Harriet Jacobs

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1861

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Summary and Study Guide


The memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) is an account of the life of Harriet Ann Jacobs, who calls herself “Linda Brent” in the narrative. Written in the tradition 18th-century writer Olaudah Equiano, Jacobs’s work joins that of her American contemporaries and fellow anti-slavery activists Solomon Northrup and Frederick Douglass. It is a key text for understanding the conditions of the lives of the enslaved in the Southern United States in the 19th century.

Jacobs was probably born in 1813. Incidents, her only work, was one of the first rare slave narratives that explored the unique condition of enslaved Black women. Jacobs went on to become a teacher and an abolitionist, moving frequently to make ends meet. Her daughter, Louisa Matilda Jacobs, called Lulu, became the first female instructor at Howard University, after having trained in home economics. She then became a matron at the institution. Neither of these positions eased her family’s financial difficulties. Jacobs’s son Joseph became the subject of Mary E. Lyons’s fictionalized 2007 biography Letters from a Slave Boy: The Story of Joseph Jacobs, which focuses on the whaling voyages that Jacobs mentions in her narrative.

Jacobs died in 1897. Her family’s papers were published in 2008 by University of North Carolina Press.


Harriet Jacobs, who calls herself Linda Brent in the narrative, was born to two enslaved parents, both of whom died when she was a child. She and her younger brother, William (in reality, John S. Jacobs), were raised by their grandmother, Martha, who lived freely in her own home as a result of gaining a reputation and income from selling her homemade crackers.

Harriet’s first six years of childhood were relatively peaceful. When she became a teenager, her owner, Dr. Flint (James Norcom) expressed his sexual interest in her. Harriet did her best to elude him and asserted her independence, both by establishing a romantic relationship with a free Black man who was a childhood friend, and by employing various ruses to keep Dr. Flint at bay. Her efforts did nothing to prevent Mrs. Flint’s jealousy. Mrs. Flint blamed Harriet for her husband’s sexual advances. Harriet later decided to have a relationship and children with a local man named Mr. Sands (Samuel Treadwell). With him, she bore a son named Benjamin (Joseph Jacobs), and a daughter named Ellen (Louisa Jacobs). Mr. Sands promised Harriet that he would free their children. He employed a speculator who successfully purchased Harriet’s brother William and her two children. However, Dr. Flint refused to sell Harriet herself until he could get her to submit to his entreaties for a sexual relationship. Only her grandmother, who bore some influence in the community, protected her from rape and further violence, playing on Dr. Flint’s fears of being exposed.

When Harriet refused Dr. Flint’s offer for better treatment in exchange for a sexual relationship, he arranged for her to go to his son’s plantation. The more cruel Mr. Flint worked Harriet incessantly. He also beat children, which made her worry about how her own would be treated if they were moved there. Mr. Flint’s new wife was similarly vicious—she did not even believe that elderly slaves should be fed. When Harriet received news from a local White man that Mr. Flint intended to bring Harriet’s children onto his land, Harriet quickly made plans for her escape and theirs.

Harriet hid in an unused pantry in the home of a slave owner. The slave owner’s wife had agreed to keep her there until it was safe to move her. Harriet was then taken to her grandmother’s attic, where she remained for seven years until her father’s best friend, Peter, could get her on a ship going north. When the opportunity finally arrived, Harriet initially balked, but her grandmother convinced her—the house was becoming less safe.

A friendly ship’s captain and sailors took Harriet and her friend Fanny, also a fugitive slave, to Philadelphia. In Philadelphia, an African American clergyman and his wife took in Harriet, while one of his friends housed Fanny. Soon, the clergyman secured Fanny and Harriet second-class train tickets to New York. In New York City, Fanny and Harriet parted ways.

Harriet first worked as a seamstress. She then quickly found employment with Mrs. Bruce, an Englishwoman who needed a nurse for her infant daughter Mary. When Harriet and Mrs. Bruce traveled to Rockaway Beach, Harriet experienced discrimination in public accommodations when she was refused service.

Harriet used her income to support her daughter Ellen who lived with a relative of Mr. Sands. Harriet soon realized that Mr. Sands would not help Ellen become free—he had made plans for Ellen to become a lifelong maid.

After Mrs. Bruce died, Harriet traveled with Mary and Mr. Bruce to England, so that the little girl could see her mother’s relatives. Harriet stayed in that country for nearly a year and recorded experiencing no racism.

Mr. Bruce married an aristocratic American woman who shared her predecessor’s anti-slavery sentiments. They, too, had a baby whom Harriet agreed to nurse. Harriet confessed that she was a fugitive slave. Worried both over Ellen’s condition and Dr. Flint’s fervent pursuit of Harriet after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, the second Mrs. Bruce had Harriet go to New England for several months with the baby. Harriet returned to New York only after Dr. Flint died. Harriet learned that Dr. Flint’s remarried widow and her new husband were trying to get Harriet back to make up for their lost fortune. To secure Harriet’s safety permanently, Mrs. Bruce met with a speculator who paid Mr. Dodge $300 for Harriet. Mrs. Bruce, as promised, promptly freed Harriet.

Harriet ends the narrative by telling the reader that she remained with Mrs. Bruce. Though she did not yet have a home of her own, she was free and close to her daughter.