Harriet Jacobs: Working for Freedpeople in Civil War Alexandria

Harriet Jacobs: Working for Freedpeople in Civil War Alexandria

Harriet Jacobs’s only known formal portrait, taken in 1894 about three years before her death. Used with permission.

The popularity of the narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl has only grown since historian Jean Fagan Yellin connected what some believed was a fictionalized account, with Harriet Jacobs’s authentic experiences in slavery and freedom.[1] Multiple versions of the text, and dramatic presentations based on it, abound. Award-winning author Colson Whitehead acknowledged that Jacobs inspired his depiction of his protagonist, Cora, and several scenes in his novel The Underground Railroad.[2] Most references to Jacobs focus on her enslavement and escape, including the almost seven years she spent in the attic of her grandmother’s home in North Carolina, before her family could arrange her escape north. Jacobs’s narrative Incidents ends with her legal freedom, although she continued longing for “a hearthstone of my own.”[3]

Not following Jacobs’s life after legal freedom misses her later contributions as an activist and advocate. During the Civil War, she worked as a relief agent in Alexandria, Virginia, helping thousands of people who had escaped slavery by crossing Union lines. “I want to add my testimony,” Jacobs had written to explain her reason for publishing Incidents in early 1861. Little did she know that she would not only testify about slavery’s horrors based on her own life, but she would also participate in finding solutions for other newly emancipated people.

But first, she had to find her place.

The Union Army occupied Alexandria, the closest Confederate town to Washington, for the entirety of the conflict. As in other such areas, people escaping slavery soon followed, once word circulated that the federal government considered them “contraband of war” and, thus, would not return them to the enemy, their enslavers. The Army was officially responsible for their well-being but fell far short, despite Congress’s attempts to formalize these policies with the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862.[4] Northern religious, antislavery, and other relief organizations began sending supplies and aid workers south, somewhat akin to how organizations help refugees today.

In the summer of 1862, Jacobs traveled to Washington and Alexandria for William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator. She bore witness to dire poverty and ill health but also reported on people’s determination to become free and self-sufficient. “Trust them, make them free, and give them the responsibility of caring for themselves, and they will soon learn to help each other,” she wrote in “Life among the Contrabands.”[5] She did more than observe and report; she pitched in to help. The trip made her recognize the role she could play if she returned.

Jacobs found her opportunity with the New York Yearly Meeting of Friends. In November 1862, several members had traveled south on a fact-finding mission. They visited Alexandria, where they met Julia Wilbur, a white former teacher sponsored by the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society. Although their report does not mention her, Wilbur wrote about meeting them in her diary.[6] It is possible the encounter planted the idea for the Quaker group, because as reported at the end of 1862, the “Committee concluded to accept the services of Harriet Jacobs—herself a former slave—to act as their agent at Alexandria.”[7]

On January 14, 1863, Jacobs moved to Alexandria, along with boxes of supplies collected by the group. Although she had seen the area five months earlier, mid-winter Alexandria was not welcoming. Not surprisingly, given the conditions, she fell ill. Wilbur was initially not very hospitable. No personal letters survive from her first fraught weeks, but in March she wrote abolitionist Lydia Maria Child (knowing Child would widely share the letter, which she did), “The misery I have witnessed must be seen to be believed.”[8]

The freedmen’s barracks, even when opened in early 1863, did not have enough room for the refugees coming into Alexandria. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Jacobs soon adjusted, and she and Wilbur developed a bond. Their first of many battles with the Army establishment revealed they could accomplish more together than either could alone. They became allies and friends, a bond that lasted until both died in the 1890s.

The Army had built utilitarian barracks for freedmen, but shelter remained insufficient. The women learned of the Army’s solution to one aspect of the shortage: house orphans in a newly built smallpox hospital south of town. Julia Wilbur wrote to her Rochester sponsors: “Dr. B [John Bigelow, a New York physician working in Alexandria] says he means to have all the orphans taken out there & kept & the same old women & nurses that take care of the sick can take care of the children. Would you think such an idea could enter the head of a sane, Christian man wh[ich] he proposes to be?”[9] The two women didn’t need medical training to recognize the folly of exposing healthy children to this contagious disease. They protested to the military governor, a mercurial general named John Slough.

The idea that two civilian women—including an African American—went “to the top” to lodge a complaint was extraordinary. They realized it as well. “My friend, this was really a great undertaking for us; we are in such a state of nervous excitement, that we were all of a trouble, & we had such a head ache too!” Wilbur wrote back to her Rochester sponsors. “Mrs. Jacobs spoke very handsomely to him, & when pleading for these children, said she ‘I have been a slave myself.’”[10] They stopped the move. And it is doubtful that Slough had ever spoken with a black woman in this kind of meeting before.

This photograph of the Jacobs School was distributed to Northern supporters. Note the “x” under Harriet Jacobs in the group and handwritten notation “H Jacobs, an ex slave” in the right hand corner. Courtesy of the Robert Langmuir African American Photograph Collection, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University.

With experiences like this under her belt, Jacobs succeeded in achieving a powerful dream: to establish a tuition-free school for African American children, led by African Americans. At least ten schools for freed children opened in Alexandria after 1861, but they charged a fee and/or were white-led.[11] Jacobs raised funds in the North and from local blacks for a building and to pay teachers, but that proved only half the battle. Who would control the school? Several white males made the case to the school trustees (most of them enslaved until recently) that their missionary society should take charge. But Jacobs urged otherwise: “I wanted the colored men to learn the time had come when it was their privilege to have something to say,” she wrote.[12] The trustees voted that Harriet’s daughter Louisa would head the school, with another young black woman as her assistant. The Jacobs Free School opened in January 1864.

During her time in Alexandria, Jacobs did not always succeed, but she learned the power of her own voice and experience. She continued to advocate for healthcare, education, housing, and, more broadly, the human rights of freedpeople. She witnessed joy and hope as the war ended, as well as trauma after President Lincoln’s assassination.

In 1865, she wrote the New York Yearly Meeting of Friends that “the time has come when I should go where labor is more needed.”[13] She hoped to establish an orphan asylum in Savannah; despite action that included a fundraising visit to England, the realities of post-war Georgia thwarted her plan. She spent years struggling to attain the yearned-for “hearthstone” about which she wrote in 1861. Her Civil War and post-Civil War work illustrate why it is premature to stop Jacobs’s story with publication of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.


[1] Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (1861; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987).

[2] Rick Koster, “Middle Passage: Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead talks to Professor of History Jim Downs about the novel The Underground Railroad,” Connecticut College Magazine, Summer 2017, https://www.conncoll.edu/news/cc-magazine/past-issues/2017-issues/summer-2017/notebook/11-middle-passage.html.

[3] Jacobs, 259.

[4] For a description of army policies and attitudes toward freedpeople, see, for example, Chandra Manning, Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016).

[5] Harriet Jacobs. “Life among the Contrabands,” The Liberator, September 5, 1862.

[6] Julia Wilbur, diary entry, November 26, 1862, in Julia Wilbur Papers (HC.MC-1158), Quaker & Special Collections, Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania.

[7] New York Yearly Meeting of Friends, Second Report of a Committee of Representatives of New York Yearly Meeting of Friends upon the Conditions and Wants of the Colored Refugees (New York: Author, 1863), 4, https://archive.org/details/reportofcommitte02newy/page/n2.

[8] Harriet Jacobs to Lydia Maria Child, March 10, 1863, in Jean Fagan Yellin, et al., The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, vols. 1 and 2 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 468.

[9] Julia Wilbur to Anna Barnes, February 27, 1863, in Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society Papers, 1851–1868, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

[10] Julia Wilbur to Anna Barnes, March 10, 1863, in Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society Papers, 1851–1868, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

[11] In 1831, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law to officially prohibit the education of enslaved and free blacks. After 1861, schools were established in Alexandria and other Union-occupied areas, such as Fortress Monroe, although black education remained illegal in the rest of the state, which remained under Confederate rule. For a list and short descriptions of schools for freedpeople in Alexandria during and right after the Civil War, see U.S. Bureau of Education, Special Report of the Commissioner of Education on the Condition and Improvement of Public Schools: in the District of Columbia: submitted to Senate June 1868, and to the House with addition, June 13, 1870. (Washington, DC: [publisher not identified], 1871), 283–293.

[12] Harriet Jacobs to Hannah Stevenson, March 10, 1864, reprinted in Yellin, et al., 551.

[13] Harriet Jacobs to the New York Yearly Meeting of Friends, March 30, 1865, reprinted in Yellin, et al., 629. Harriet and Louisa Jacobs continued to work in Alexandria until July 1865.

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre is a writer and editor in Alexandria, Virginia. Her book A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur’s Struggle for Purpose (Potomac Books, 2017) is a biography of a New York teacher who served as a relief agent in Alexandria during the Civil War. She is currently researching the intersecting lives of Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and the family of author Nathaniel Parker Willis. Her website and blog are at paulawhitacre.com.

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