Historic adventure: Harriet Jacobs

Historic adventure: Harriet Jacobs

Note: This was originally intended to be a newspaper article. Some of the tour deals with sensitive subject matter, mainly slavery in the South.

EDENTON, North Carolina — The Harriet Jacobs tour is offered through the Edenton State Historic Site. Tickets cost $2.50 per person and can be purchased at the agency’s Visitor’s Center, 108 N. Broad St. More information can by found at the agency’s Facebook page, here.

What would you do to gain your freedom?

What if you had to leave your family behind? What if your escape meant that your loved ones would suffer?

Edenton State Historic Site Interpretation Coordinator Andrew Cole asked this question during a recent Harriet Jacobs tour.

This is the dilemma Harriet Jacobs faced in pre-Civil War Edenton. Jacobs escaped slavery, leaving her two children and numerous family members behind. She wrote about her escape and the years before it in her book “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.”

The Edenton State Historic Sites hosts Harriet Jacobs tours throughout the year. The walk is about a mile and starts right in front of the Historic Sites welcome center on North Broad Street. In front of the pink Victorian building is a state historic marker for Jacobs. Here Cole introduced tour-goers to Jacobs, Dr. James Norcom and lawyer Samuel Sawyer.

Among the stops is the church Jacobs’ grandmother, Molly Horniblow, attended. 

“These are real people,” Cole said, noting that Jacobs’ book contained pseudonyms for the Edenton residents. Jacobs wrote the book under a pseudonym, Lydia Marie Child. It was not until the 1970s that the true author and the real names of the book’s characters were discovered through the research of Jean Fagan Yellin.

At the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse, Horniblow and other freed slaves would have petitioned for their freedom. Often slaves were able to pay for their freedom by asking their owners whether they could take on other jobs, in which they kept their money. They would then go to the courthouse to have their freedom documented. It took several attempts before Horniblow’s dreams of freedom were realized in 1828.

Behind the courthouse is the Chowan County Jail. The jail was built in 1825 and remained in use until 1979. In 1835, Jacobs decided to escape. While she was in hiding her brother and her children — Louisa was about 3 years old at the time — imprisoned for several months, possibly in an attempt to get Jacobs to turn herself in, Cole said.

After being in the “Snakey Swamp” for some time, a few of Jacobs’s friends and family helped her hide in the attic of the house of her grandmother, who was now a freed black woman. Her house was on West King Street.

According to Jacob’s book, the space was 9 feet by 7 feet and was 3 feet tall at its tallest point.

“Imagine being in a space like this for seven years,” Cole said. He noted that Jacobs may have come down occasionally, as she notes in her book that sometimes she had trouble walking around. During her seven year stay, there was a little hole she could see out of and watch her children, who lived with their grandmother. 

In 1842, Jacobs left Edenton on a boat heading to Philadelphia. In 1853, Jacobs wrote about her experiences of slavery in the book “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.” With the coming of the Civil War, Jacobs worked nursing soldiers and teaching freedmen. After the war, she and her daughter ran a boarding house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her death came in 1897, and she was buried in Cambridge.

“If you get anything from Harriet’s life, I want you to remember her resilience and perseverance,” Cole said.

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