Harriet Ann Jacobs.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself online

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Produced by Juliet Sutherland, Andre Lapierre and PG Distributed

[Transcriber's note: The spelling irregularities of the original have been
retained in this etext.]


in the

Life of a Slave Girl.

Written by Herself.

Linda Brent

"Northerners know nothing at all about Slavery. They think it is perpetual
bondage only. They have no conception of the depth of _degradation_
involved in that word, SLAVERY; if they had, they would never cease their
efforts until so horrible a system was overthrown."

A Woman Of North Carolina.

"Rise up, ye women that are at ease! Hear my voice, ye careless daughters!
Give ear unto my speech."

Isaiah xxxii. 9.

Edited By L. Maria Child.

Boston: Published For The Author.


Preface By The Author

Reader be assured this narrative is no fiction. I am aware that some of my
adventures may seem incredible; but they are, nevertheless, strictly true.
I have not exaggerated the wrongs inflicted by Slavery; on the contrary, my
descriptions fall far short of the facts. I have concealed the names of
places, and given persons fictitious names. I had no motive for secrecy on
my own account, but I deemed it kind and considerate towards others to
pursue this course.

I wish I were more competent to the task I have undertaken. But I trust my
readers will excuse deficiencies in consideration of circumstances. I was
born and reared in Slavery; and I remained in a Slave State twenty-seven
years. Since I have been at the North, it has been necessary for me to work
diligently for my own support, and the education of my children. This has
not left me much leisure to make up for the loss of early opportunities to
improve myself; and it has compelled me to write these pages at irregular
intervals, whenever I could snatch an hour from household duties.

When I first arrived in Philadelphia, Bishop Paine advised me to publish a
sketch of my life, but I told him I was altogether incompetent to such an
undertaking. Though I have improved my mind somewhat since that time, I
still remain of the same opinion; but I trust my motives will excuse what
might otherwise seem presumptuous. I have not written my experiences in
order to attract attention to myself; on the contrary, it would have been
more pleasant to me to have been silent about my own history. Neither do I
care to excite sympathy for my own sufferings. But I do earnestly desire to
arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two
millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I
suffered, and most of them far worse. I want to add my testimony to that of
abler pens to convince the people of the Free States what Slavery really
is. Only by experience can any one realize how deep, and dark, and foul is
that pit of abominations. May the blessing of God rest on this imperfect
effort in behalf of my persecuted people!

- _Linda Brent_

Introduction By The Editor

The author of the following autobiography is personally known to me, and
her conversation and manners inspire me with confidence. During the last
seventeen years, she has lived the greater part of the time with a
distinguished family in New York, and has so deported herself as to be
highly esteemed by them. This fact is sufficient, without further
credentials of her character. I believe those who know her will not be
disposed to doubt her veracity, though some incidents in her story are more
romantic than fiction.

At her request, I have revised her manuscript; but such changes as I have
made have been mainly for purposes of condensation and orderly arrangement.
I have not added any thing to the incidents, or changed the import of her
very pertinent remarks. With trifling exceptions, both the ideas and the
language are her own. I pruned excrescences a little, but otherwise I had
no reason for changing her lively and dramatic way of telling her own
story. The names of both persons and places are known to me; but for good
reasons I suppress them.

It will naturally excite surprise that a woman reared in Slavery should be
able to write so well. But circumstances will explain this. In the first
place, nature endowed her with quick perceptions. Secondly, the mistress,
with whom she lived till she was twelve years old, was a kind, considerate
friend, who taught her to read and spell. Thirdly, she was placed in
favorable circumstances after she came to the North; having frequent
intercourse with intelligent persons, who felt a friendly interest in her
welfare, and were disposed to give her opportunities for self-improvement.

I am well aware that many will accuse me of indecorum for presenting these
pages to the public; for the experiences of this intelligent and
much-injured woman belong to a class which some call delicate subjects, and
others indelicate. This peculiar phase of Slavery has generally been kept
veiled; but the public ought to be made acquainted with its monstrous
features, and I willingly take the responsibility of presenting them with
the veil withdrawn. I do this for the sake of my sisters in bondage, who
are suffering wrongs so foul, that our ears are too delicate to listen to
them. I do it with the hope of arousing conscientious and reflecting women
at the North to a sense of their duty in the exertion of moral influence on
the question of Slavery, on all possible occasions. I do it with the hope
that every man who reads this narrative will swear solemnly before God
that, so far as he has power to prevent it, no fugitive from Slavery shall
ever be sent back to suffer in that loathsome den of corruption and

- _L. Maria Child_



The New Master And Mistress

The Slaves' New Year's Day

The Slave Who Dared To Feel Like A Man

The Trials Of Girlhood

The Jealous Mistress

The Lover

What Slaves Are Taught To Think Of The North

Sketches Of Neighboring Slaveholders

A Perilous Passage In The Slave Girl's Life

The New Tie To Life

Fear Of Insurrection

The Church And Slavery

Another Link To Life

Continued Persecutions

Scenes At The Plantation

The Flight

Months Of Peril

The Children Sold

New Perils

The Loophole Of Retreat

Christmas Festivities

Still In Prison

The Candidate For Congress

Competition In Cunning

Important Era In My Brother's Life

New Destination For The Children

Aunt Nancy

Preparations For Escape

Northward Bound

Incidents In Philadelphia

The Meeting Of Mother And Daughter

A Home Found

The Old Enemy Again

Prejudice Against Color

The Hairbreadth Escape

A Visit To England

Renewed Invitations To Go South

The Confession

The Fugitive Slave Law

Free At Last


Selected Bibliography


in the

Life of A Slave Girl,

Seven Years Concealed.

* * * * *

I. Childhood

I was born a slave; but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood
had passed away. My father was a carpenter, and considered so intelligent
and skilful in his trade, that, when buildings out of the common line were
to be erected, he was sent for from long distances, to be head workman. On
condition of paying his mistress two hundred dollars a year, and supporting
himself, he was allowed to work at his trade, and manage his own affairs.
His strongest wish was to purchase his children; but, though he several
times offered his hard earnings for that purpose, he never succeeded. In
complexion my parents were a light shade of brownish yellow, and were
termed mulattoes. They lived together in a comfortable home; and, though we
were all slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed I was a
piece of merchandise, trusted to them for safe keeping, and liable to be
demanded of them at any moment. I had one brother, William, who was two
years younger than myself - a bright, affectionate child. I had also a great
treasure in my maternal grandmother, who was a remarkable woman in many
respects. She was the daughter of a planter in South Carolina, who, at his
death, left her mother and his three children free, with money to go to St.
Augustine, where they had relatives. It was during the Revolutionary War;
and they were captured on their passage, carried back, and sold to
different purchasers. Such was the story my grandmother used to tell me;
but I do not remember all the particulars. She was a little girl when she
was captured and sold to the keeper of a large hotel. I have often heard
her tell how hard she fared during childhood. But as she grew older she
evinced so much intelligence, and was so faithful, that her master and
mistress could not help seeing it was for their interest to take care of
such a valuable piece of property. She became an indispensable personage in
the household, officiating in all capacities, from cook and wet nurse to
seamstress. She was much praised for her cooking; and her nice crackers
became so famous in the neighborhood that many people were desirous of
obtaining them. In consequence of numerous requests of this kind, she asked
permission of her mistress to bake crackers at night, after all the
household work was done; and she obtained leave to do it, provided she
would clothe herself and her children from the profits. Upon these terms,
after working hard all day for her mistress, she began her midnight
bakings, assisted by her two oldest children. The business proved
profitable; and each year she laid by a little, which was saved for a fund
to purchase her children. Her master died, and the property was divided
among his heirs. The widow had her dower in the hotel which she continued
to keep open. My grandmother remained in her service as a slave; but her
children were divided among her master's children. As she had five,
Benjamin, the youngest one, was sold, in order that each heir might have an
equal portion of dollars and cents. There was so little difference in our
ages that he seemed more like my brother than my uncle. He was a bright,
handsome lad, nearly white; for he inherited the complexion my grandmother
had derived from Anglo-Saxon ancestors. Though only ten years old, seven
hundred and twenty dollars were paid for him. His sale was a terrible blow
to my grandmother, but she was naturally hopeful, and she went to work with
renewed energy, trusting in time to be able to purchase some of her
children. She had laid up three hundred dollars, which her mistress one day
begged as a loan, promising to pay her soon. The reader probably knows that
no promise or writing given to a slave is legally binding; for, according
to Southern laws, a slave, _being_ property, can _hold_ no property. When
my grandmother lent her hard earnings to her mistress, she trusted solely
to her honor. The honor of a slaveholder to a slave!

To this good grandmother I was indebted for many comforts. My brother
Willie and I often received portions of the crackers, cakes, and preserves,
she made to sell; and after we ceased to be children we were indebted to
her for many more important services.

Such were the unusually fortunate circumstances of my early childhood. When
I was six years old, my mother died; and then, for the first time, I
learned, by the talk around me, that I was a slave. My mother's mistress
was the daughter of my grandmother's mistress. She was the foster sister of
my mother; they were both nourished at my grandmother's breast. In fact, my
mother had been weaned at three months old, that the babe of the mistress
might obtain sufficient food. They played together as children; and, when
they became women, my mother was a most faithful servant to her whiter
foster sister. On her death-bed her mistress promised that her children
should never suffer for any thing; and during her lifetime she kept her
word. They all spoke kindly of my dead mother, who had been a slave merely
in name, but in nature was noble and womanly. I grieved for her, and my
young mind was troubled with the thought who would now take care of me and
my little brother. I was told that my home was now to be with her mistress;
and I found it a happy one. No toilsome or disagreeable duties were imposed
on me. My mistress was so kind to me that I was always glad to do her
bidding, and proud to labor for her as much as my young years would permit.
I would sit by her side for hours, sewing diligently, with a heart as free
from care as that of any free-born white child. When she thought I was
tired, she would send me out to run and jump; and away I bounded, to gather
berries or flowers to decorate her room. Those were happy days - too happy
to last. The slave child had no thought for the morrow; but there came that
blight, which too surely waits on every human being born to be a chattel.

When I was nearly twelve years old, my kind mistress sickened and died. As
I saw the cheek grow paler, and the eye more glassy, how earnestly I prayed
in my heart that she might live! I loved her; for she had been almost like
a mother to me. My prayers were not answered. She died, and they buried her
in the little churchyard, where, day after day, my tears fell upon her

I was sent to spend a week with my grandmother. I was now old enough to
begin to think of the future; and again and again I asked myself what they
would do with me. I felt sure I should never find another mistress so kind
as the one who was gone. She had promised my dying mother that her children
should never suffer for any thing; and when I remembered that, and recalled
her many proofs of attachment to me, I could not help having some hopes
that she had left me free. My friends were almost certain it would be so.
They thought she would be sure to do it, on account of my mother's love and
faithful service. But, alas! we all know that the memory of a faithful
slave does not avail much to save her children from the auction block.

After a brief period of suspense, the will of my mistress was read, and we
learned that she had bequeathed me to her sister's daughter, a child of
five years old. So vanished our hopes. My mistress had taught me the
precepts of God's Word: "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself."
"Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them."
But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her
neighbor. I would give much to blot out from my memory that one great
wrong. As a child, I loved my mistress; and, looking back on the happy days
I spent with her, I try to think with less bitterness of this act of
injustice. While I was with her, she taught me to read and spell; and for
this privilege, which so rarely falls to the lot of a slave, I bless her

She possessed but few slaves; and at her death those were all distributed
among her relatives. Five of them were my grandmother's children, and had
shared the same milk that nourished her mother's children. Notwithstanding
my grandmother's long and faithful service to her owners, not one of her
children escaped the auction block. These God-breathing machines are no
more, in the sight of their masters, than the cotton they plant, or the
horses they tend.

II. The New Master And Mistress.

Dr. Flint, a physician in the neighborhood, had married the sister of my
mistress, and I was now the property of their little daughter. It was not
without murmuring that I prepared for my new home; and what added to my
unhappiness, was the fact that my brother William was purchased by the same
family. My father, by his nature, as well as by the habit of transacting
business as a skillful mechanic, had more of the feelings of a freeman than
is common among slaves. My brother was a spirited boy; and being brought up
under such influences, he daily detested the name of master and mistress.
One day, when his father and his mistress both happened to call him at the
same time, he hesitated between the two; being perplexed to know which had
the strongest claim upon his obedience. He finally concluded to go to his
mistress. When my father reproved him for it, he said, "You both called me,
and I didn't know which I ought to go to first."

"You are _my_ child," replied our father, "and when I call you, you should
come immediately, if you have to pass through fire and water."

Poor Willie! He was now to learn his first lesson of obedience to a master.
Grandmother tried to cheer us with hopeful words, and they found an echo in
the credulous hearts of youth.

When we entered our new home we encountered cold looks, cold words, and
cold treatment. We were glad when the night came. On my narrow bed I moaned
and wept, I felt so desolate and alone.

I had been there nearly a year, when a dear little friend of mine was
buried. I heard her mother sob, as the clods fell on the coffin of her only
child, and I turned away from the grave, feeling thankful that I still had
something left to love. I met my grandmother, who said, "Come with me,
Linda;" and from her tone I knew that something sad had happened. She led
me apart from the people, and then said, "My child, your father is dead."
Dead! How could I believe it? He had died so suddenly I had not even heard
that he was sick. I went home with my grandmother. My heart rebelled
against God, who had taken from me mother, father, mistress, and friend.
The good grandmother tried to comfort me. "Who knows the ways of God?" said
she. "Perhaps they have been kindly taken from the evil days to come."
Years afterwards I often thought of this. She promised to be a mother to
her grandchildren, so far as she might be permitted to do so; and
strengthened by her love, I returned to my master's. I thought I should be
allowed to go to my father's house the next morning; but I was ordered to
go for flowers, that my mistress's house might be decorated for an evening
party. I spent the day gathering flowers and weaving them into festoons,
while the dead body of my father was lying within a mile of me. What cared
my owners for that? he was merely a piece of property. Moreover, they
thought he had spoiled his children, by teaching them to feel that they
were human beings. This was blasphemous doctrine for a slave to teach;
presumptuous in him, and dangerous to the masters.

The next day I followed his remains to a humble grave beside that of my
dear mother. There were those who knew my father's worth, and respected his

My home now seemed more dreary than ever. The laugh of the little
slave-children sounded harsh and cruel. It was selfish to feel so about the
joy of others. My brother moved about with a very grave face. I tried to
comfort him, by saying, "Take courage, Willie; brighter days will come by
and by."

"You don't know any thing about it, Linda," he replied. "We shall have to
stay here all our days; we shall never be free."

I argued that we were growing older and stronger, and that perhaps we
might, before long, be allowed to hire our own time, and then we could earn
money to buy our freedom. William declared this was much easier to say than
to do; moreover, he did not intend to _buy_ his freedom. We held daily
controversies upon this subject.

Little attention was paid to the slaves' meals in Dr. Flint's house. If
they could catch a bit of food while it was going, well and good. I gave
myself no trouble on that score, for on my various errands I passed my
grandmother's house, where there was always something to spare for me. I
was frequently threatened with punishment if I stopped there; and my
grandmother, to avoid detaining me, often stood at the gate with something
for my breakfast or dinner. I was indebted to _her_ for all my comforts,
spiritual or temporal. It was _her_ labor that supplied my scanty wardrobe.
I have a vivid recollection of the linsey-woolsey dress given me every
winter by Mrs. Flint. How I hated it! It was one of the badges of slavery.

While my grandmother was thus helping to support me from her hard earnings,
the three hundred dollars she had lent her mistress were never repaid. When
her mistress died, her son-in-law, Dr. Flint, was appointed executor. When
grandmother applied to him for payment, he said the estate was insolvent,
and the law prohibited payment. It did not, however, prohibit him from
retaining the silver candelabra, which had been purchased with that money.
I presume they will be handed down in the family, from generation to

My grandmother's mistress had always promised her that, at her death, she
should be free; and it was said that in her will she made good the promise.
But when the estate was settled, Dr. Flint told the faithful old servant
that, under existing circumstances, it was necessary she should be sold.

On the appointed day, the customary advertisement was posted up,
proclaiming that there would be a "public sale of negroes, horses, &c." Dr.
Flint called to tell my grandmother that he was unwilling to wound her
feelings by putting her up at auction, and that he would prefer to dispose
of her at private sale. My grandmother saw through his hypocrisy; she
understood very well that he was ashamed of the job. She was a very
spirited woman, and if he was base enough to sell her, when her mistress
intended she should be free, she was determined the public should know it.
She had for a long time supplied many families with crackers and preserves;
consequently, "Aunt Marthy," as she was called, was generally known, and
every body who knew her respected her intelligence and good character. Her
long and faithful service in the family was also well known, and the
intention of her mistress to leave her free. When the day of sale came, she
took her place among the chattels, and at the first call she sprang upon
the auction-block. Many voices called out, "Shame! Shame! Who is going to
sell _you_, aunt Marthy? Don't stand there! That is no place for _you_."
Without saying a word, she quietly awaited her fate. No one bid for her. At
last, a feeble voice said, "Fifty dollars." It came from a maiden lady,
seventy years old, the sister of my grandmother's deceased mistress. She
had lived forty years under the same roof with my grandmother; she knew how
faithfully she had served her owners, and how cruelly she had been
defrauded of her rights; and she resolved to protect her. The auctioneer
waited for a higher bid; but her wishes were respected; no one bid above
her. She could neither read nor write; and when the bill of sale was made
out, she signed it with a cross. But what consequence was that, when she
had a big heart overflowing with human kindness? She gave the old servant
her freedom.

At that time, my grandmother was just fifty years old. Laborious years had
passed since then; and now my brother and I were slaves to the man who had
defrauded her of her money, and tried to defraud her of her freedom. One of
my mother's sisters, called Aunt Nancy, was also a slave in his family. She
was a kind, good aunt to me; and supplied the place of both housekeeper and
waiting maid to her mistress. She was, in fact, at the beginning and end of
every thing.

Mrs. Flint, like many southern women, was totally deficient in energy. She
had not strength to superintend her household affairs; but her nerves were
so strong, that she could sit in her easy chair and see a woman whipped,
till the blood trickled from every stroke of the lash. She was a member of
the church; but partaking of the Lord's supper did not seem to put her in a
Christian frame of mind. If dinner was not served at the exact time on that
particular Sunday, she would station herself in the kitchen, and wait till
it was dished, and then spit in all the kettles and pans that had been used
for cooking. She did this to prevent the cook and her children from eking
out their meagre fare with the remains of the gravy and other scrapings.
The slaves could get nothing to eat except what she chose to give them.
Provisions were weighed out by the pound and ounce, three times a day. I
can assure you she gave them no chance to eat wheat bread from her flour
barrel. She knew how many biscuits a quart of flour would make, and exactly
what size they ought to be.

Dr. Flint was an epicure. The cook never sent a dinner to his table without
fear and trembling; for if there happened to be a dish not to his liking,
he would either order her to be whipped, or compel her to eat every
mouthful of it in his presence. The poor, hungry creature might not have
objected to eating it; but she did not object to having her master cram it
down her throat till she choked.

They had a pet dog, that was a nuisance in the house. The cook was ordered

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Online LibraryHarriet Ann JacobsIncidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself → online text (page 1 of 19)