September 6, 2012, 4:18 PM
By SCOTT KORB
Harriet Jacobs arrived in Washington in June 1862, she later reported, “without molestation.” Lots of people traveled in and out of the capital at the time, but for Jacobs it was quite a feat. By then a correspondent on assignment for William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator, Jacobs was a former slave and author of the book “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” which she wrote under the assumed name Linda Brent. Traveling through Maryland, where slavery was still legal, and Pennsylvania, where anti-black animus still ran high, would have made for tough going for most free blacks. Even fewer could have taken in the squalor that Jacobs found among the thousands of refugees from the South now huddled in the capital.
Then again, Jacobs wasn’t most people. As she recounted in “Incidents,” to escape the sexual predations of her master in Edenton, N.C., and his constant threat to sell her, Jacobs hid first in a swamp and then, for seven years, in a garret in her grandmother’s house. In June 1842 she escaped on a boat to Philadelphia and then traveled on to New York.
At the urging of several friends within the abolitionist movement, Jacobs published “Incidents” in early 1861. A January 1861 review by William C. Nell, a black Bostonian, in the Liberator said the book “presents features more attractive than many of its predecessors” because “this record of complicated experience in the life of a young woman, a doomed victim to America’s peculiar institution … surely need not the charms that any pen of fiction, however gifted and graceful, could lend.”
Jacobs encountered Garrison in June 1862 at the yearly meeting of the Progressive Friends of Longwood, Pa., just months after President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill abolishing slavery in the capital. At Longwood, Garrison led the drafting of a further appeal to the president calling for the immediate emancipation of all slaves, a move the Progressive Friends believed would produce the quickest end to the war.
As the meeting broke up, Garrison enlisted Jacobs to travel to Washington, “where the shackles had just fallen,” she wrote, and deliver on his “request of a line on the condition of the contrabands.” The report, totaling about 4,000 words, would appear in the Sept. 5, 1862 issue of the newspaper.
Cabinet photograph by Gilbert Studios, Washington, D.C. Gold-toned albumen print
Her work in the capital, the first she’d taken on as a journalist, began the following morning with a visit to Duff Green’s Row, the government headquarters for newly freed blacks and refugees from the South. Jacobs was at first horrified to discover men and women and children – former slaves like herself – “all huddled together, without any distinction or regard for age or sex.” Here, she said, were the pitiful, the “hungry, naked and sick” from Matthew’s Gospel – many dressed in rags and with nowhere to sleep but the bare floor – truly the least brothers and sisters of a nation at war. “Those tearful eyes often looked up to me with the language,” she wrote, “‘Is this freedom?’” Jacobs found measles, diphtheria, scarlet and typhoid fever; some days saw as many as 10 deaths among the refugees.
And still, the following day and the one after that more men and women and children would come to take the places of the dead, because this was freedom. They would arrive all day and through the night, each newcomer recorded by a superintendent who seemed able to do little more for them, Jacobs reported, than take their names. With no one directly charged with the care of the refugees and “nothing at hand,” she wrote, “to administer to the comfort of the sick and dying,” Jacobs could arrive at only one conclusion: “I felt that their sufferings must be unknown to the people.”
Jacobs found able-bodied men hiring themselves out at just $10 a month; single women were paid $4, and a woman with a child or two was promised between $2.50 and $3. Despite claims to the contrary, Jacobs reported, these people would “work and take care of themselves.” She certainly had. Finding a similar desire to work among the refugees across the Potomac in a “strongly secesh” Alexandria, Va., Jacobs reported anxiety among the laboring refugees that their pay, which was very slow in coming, was actually being sent to their former masters.
Shortly after Jacobs arrived in Washington a new – and by her initial assessment, much more competent – superintendent was hired to oversee the flood of black refugees into the capital. Danforth B. Nichols was a Methodist minister affiliated with both the American Missionary Association and the recently organized National Freedmen’s Relief Association of the District of Columbia. According to Jacobs, he “laid down rules, went to work in earnest pulling down partitions to enlarge the rooms, that he might establish two hospitals, one for the men and another for the women.” This pleased Jacobs’s Victorian sensibilities. Nichols, Jacobs believed, “seemed to understand what these people most needed.” (Hired in May 1863 to fill a similar position in Arlington, Va., Nichols’s reputation would fall. A former slave, Lewis Johnson, who knew Nichols in Arlington, would later testify: “Mr Nichols was not kind to the people under him in the camp; he used to knock them about and kick them right smart. … I can not tell the number of persons he used to abuse, but there were a great many.”)
Jacobs’s article was more than a report, though — it was a plea to her Northern readers’ consciences. She appealed to their vanity as well: Whereas the Freedmen’s Relief Association, “a small society in Washington,” was doing all it could to provide cots and mattresses for the refugees, Jacobs reminded her readers, “Washington is not New England.”
After all, New England had provided both Hannah Stevenson, the first Massachusetts woman to volunteer during the war, and Julia Kendall, who responded to a call from Stevenson for “superior nurses” to join the effort in Washington. Making rounds at Duff Green’s Row, Kendall and Stevenson, whose names, Jacobs said, would “be lisped in prayer by many a dying slave,” were the first white women she had encountered among the refugees – “except those who had come in to hire them.”
Even before her article appeared, Jacobs wrote dispatches to individual Northern readers and friends. A single letter from Jacobs, she wrote, requesting goods from a woman in New York had resulted in the donation of “an immense box” and a total transformation of the situation for the refugees:
Before the sun went down, those ladies who have labored so hard for the comfort of these people had the satisfaction of seeing every man, woman and child with clean garments, lying in a clean bed. What a contrast! They seemed different beings. Every countenance beamed with gratitude and satisfied rest. To me, it was a picture of holy peace within. The next day was the first Christian Sabbath they had ever known. One mother passed away as the setting sun threw its last rays across her dying bed, and as I looked upon her I could but say – “One day of freedom, and gone to her God.”
Jacobs moved freely among Washington and Alexandria and even Arlington Heights, “Gen. Lee’s beautiful residence, … so faithfully guarded by our Northern army” and also home to refugees from the South. Alexandria, though, was where she directed most of her attention, jotting down descriptions of former slaves now behind Union lines, as well as the opportunities that Alexandria’s refugees presented for Northern philanthropy.
Alexandria’s old Washington School House, constructed in 1785 with an endowment from George Washington, was, to Jacobs, “the most wretched of all the places.” It was used during the war as a women’s hospital and later a school, and Jacobs found refugees there “from infancy to a hundred years old.” Six or seven blocks to the west was Birch’s slave pen, requisitioned by the government as a residence for refugees and a prison for secessionists – “all within speaking distance of each other.” Another residence was home to any number of other destitute people who, like those housed in the slave pen and the old school house, were supplied with clothing given to Jacobs by women belonging to freedmen’s organizations in the North. These women “clothed the naked, fed the hungry,” Jacobs wrote.
By the time Jacobs arrived in Alexandria, there were already three freedmen’s schools established to teach an “eager group of old and young striving to learn their A, B, C, and Scripture sentences.” In her report, though, Jacobs looked north for more female teachers, who unlike men, she believed, “could do something more than teach them their A, B, C. They need to be taught the right habits of living and the true principles of life.” In time, Jacobs would open her own school in Alexandria – the Jacobs Free School, where she would be known as Mrs. Jacobs – bringing along her daughter Louisa and also recruiting two black women from Massachusetts, the sisters Eliza Mariana and Sarah Virginia Lawton, daughters of the activist Edward B. Lawton.
After begging her readers for patience for those they might find “so degraded by slavery that they do not know the usages of civilized life,” Jacobs’s final plea was on behalf of the many orphans she encountered in her travels. Her model of charity was a refugee herself. A mother of two had just died, Jacobs reported, when a woman approached her in the hospital begging to adopt one of the children. She came with five children of her own. “What can you do with this child,” Jacobs asked her, “shut up here with your own? They are as many as you can attend to.”
Tearfully, the woman told Jacobs: “The child’s mother was a stranger; none of her friends cum wid her from de old place. I took one boy down on de plantation; he is a big boy now, working mong de Unions. De Lord help me to bring up dat boy, and he will help me to take care dis child. My husband work for de Unions when dey pay him. I can make home for all. Dis child shall hab part ob de crust.”
Jacobs made the arrangements. And then came her scold in the paper: “How few white mothers, living in luxury, with six children, could find room in her heart for a seventh, and that child a stranger!”
Jacobs’s bet with her September report was that some white mothers would take up this charge and find room for the orphans, “from eight years old down to the little one-day freeman.” She knew that many more would contribute to institutions set up throughout the North and South to care for them. Jacobs would return to Alexandria and renew this plea. She would return to bring relief throughout the war – making a home for herself and all comers – as the numbers of refugees swelled. She would return to write, and this time she would return under her own name.
Harriet Jacobs’s War
February 20, 2013, 12:11 pm
By SCOTT M. KORB
By early 1863, the former slave Harriet Jacobs was in better health than she’d been in years. Nearly two decades earlier, she had escaped to freedom after years hidden away in the garret above her grandmother’s home in Edenton, N.C. The confinement – within a crawlspace 9 feet long, 7 feet wide and 3 feet high – had been physically punishing; she noted in her narrative, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.”
Jacobs had written the book in the 1850s, but in fits and starts, slowed not only by her responsibilities as a nursemaid in the Hudson Valley home of the magazine editor Nathaniel Parker Willis but also at one point by “a severe attack of Rheumatism” that kept her from raising her hands even to her head. The following year, once again suffering from an “old complaint,” Jacobs was given the diagnosis of what may have been uterine fibroids: “The Doct examined me this summer an say that I have a Tumer on my womb and that my womb have become hard as stone.”
But in February 1863, energized by President Lincoln’s promise of emancipation and her own public role as an abolitionist, these troubles seemed finally behind her. The previous six months, she admitted to her friend Amy Post, had been the happiest of her life. This was almost certainly the result, in part, of her beginning a career as an activist newspaper correspondent.
Jacobs’s first piece of journalism, coming on the heels of a celebrated slave narrative and based on her reporting in the capital, had appeared in September. Writing in William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, she’d called on abolitionists in the North to provide clothing and other goods to black refugees filling the “contraband” camps in Washington and Alexandria, Va. She did more than report: she’d sought homes for orphans and appealed for Northern teachers to travel South to help; women especially were needed. Jacobs made a special plea to the young Charlotte Forten, an abolitionist poet, who would move to the freedman settlement at Port Royal, S.C., as one of its first black teachers.
Jacobs, who was nearly 50, returned to Alexandria in mid-January as a relief worker. It was for her a religious calling. “I have often read the sentence – they are God’s poor,” she had written to Post, almost certainly referring to a line in William Andrew Smith’s 1856 proslavery lecture “The Duty of Masters to Slaves”: “They are God’s poor, committed to us. We must control and protect them for their profit as well as work them for our mutual profit.” Jacobs, of course, saw her commitment to God’s poor differently than Smith. Of that particular line, she added to Post, “I have learned its comprehensions.” She would be committed to them, not the other way around.
Indeed, for the work at hand, Jacobs believed she’d been spared – from slavery, from her confinement, from disease. Now she came wielding credentials from New York Yearly Meeting of Friends, a religious group, which read, “to aid the Colored Refugees as matron.”
On hand to receive Jacobs’s letter of introduction was Julia Ann Wilbur, a Quaker from upstate New York who’d come to Alexandria in 1862 as a relief agent with the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society. Wilbur, an avid diarist and feisty letter writer, first noted meeting Jacobs in 1849 at the antislavery reading room founded in Rochester by Jacobs’s brother John. (In late 1838, John had freed himself from his master, the congressman Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, father to Harriet’s children, after leaving behind this note: “Sir – I have left you, not to return; when I have got settled, I will give you further satisfaction. No longer yours, JOHN S. JACOB.”) This later meeting in Alexandria struck Wilbur as not entirely pleasant.
Jacobs herself seemed nice enough, “well calculated to give personal attention to those people, to nurse the sick & care for them in various ways,” Wilbur wrote in a report to Anna M.C. Barnes, the secretary of the antislavery society. “She can do these things much better than I can, & I am glad she has come, & we want such a person here. I welcome her with all my heart.”
But the letter announcing Jacobs in Alexandria and laying out her responsibilities also seemed to Wilbur a slap in the face – “almost like an insult to us.” According to Wilbur’s own New York Quakers, Jacobs was “to appropriate the clothing & other things wh. they have sent & may send for those people. She is to keep a record of the names of all the persons & a list of the articles furnished to them to prevent fraud or mistakes.” Given what Jacobs had written of her previous chaotic experiences in Alexandria, the sick and dying tucked away in dark rooms, to say nothing of the limited space, Wilbur found the implications of Jacobs’s task absolutely untenable.
Wilbur had a different vision for the work being done. The situation Jacobs arrived into called for much more flexibility. Wilbur would be content, she insisted to Barnes, “as far as we can satisfy ourselves that persons are needy & deserving before we give them any thing, & give them what is adapted to their wants if we have it. Nothing further has been required of me by those who have sent goods to me.” And that list was growing. Donations had come in from Homer, Wheatland, Rochester, and Niagara County, in New York. A large box had arrived from Boston, directed to her by a nurse at work in the hospital. Separating out and keeping perfect records of the goods sent to Jacobs, Wilbur surmised, would “take the whole time of one person.” They were now only two.
Still, it wasn’t just the added work Jacobs’s arrival would require that set Wilbur off. Nor was it simply the New York Society’s apparent obliviousness to the conditions on the ground in Alexandria. Of the town’s poorest, mainly black, neighborhoods along the water, Wilbur had noted in her diary: “I saw many C’s [contrabands] in dreadful places – no chimneys – no floors – Unfit for brutes. No windows – no beds – but rags! It made me sick!” Government barracks to house the refugees were still under construction, and already under threat: “Some of the Soldiers act very meanly towards the colored folks, & one was heard to say he would burn the barracks when they are finished.”
But in the end, Wilbur took the letter Jacobs presented, written by the prominent Quaker Benjamin Tatham, quite personally. Given what she was up against, she explained to Barnes, “If the N.Y. folks do not think us trusty & honest why, then, I wish they wd. send no goods to us.” And to add further insult to this injury, Tatham had sent Jacobs with boxes addressed to the acting superintendent, the Baptist minister Albert Gladwin, who was away from Alexandria when she arrived. Those boxes would go unopened and their goods undistributed until he could receive them himself, five days later.
In a letter to Wilbur written a week after Jacobs arrived, Jonathan Dennis Jr., the Washington Quaker serving as liaison between the New York Society and their new agent in the South, asked after her – unable to reach Jacobs directly, and apparently not certain even of her name: “Unsure of Hannah Jacobs’ Address will thou please to see her and ascertain if she has a safe place to receive and keep the goods until she can distribute them. Please to see – what kind of place she has, and write me what thou thinks of it.”
This letter from Dennis, and Wilbur’s reply, apparently led to an invitation for Jacobs to pay him a visit. In a follow-up letter to Barnes, Wilbur described what she’d learned of the Dennises: “I am told he has a southern wife, she is a gay lady & wants to shoot every nigger, one of the real explosive kind of women. … Mrs. Jacobs went there. Mrs. D. didn’t kick her out of doors, but she might about as well have done it.” Jacobs’s bravery appears to have endeared her to Wilbur, and soon they developed a working partnership. Before long they’d have a friendship.
Touring the town they found smallpox around every corner. This threatened not only Jacobs’s own good health, but also both women’s ability to maintain secure rooming in the city. Writing to Amy Post, Wilbur described the predicament she and Jacobs found themselves in throughout January:
There is so much small pox here we cannot go to many places. – I mean to keep out of the rooms where it is. – If Mr. K’s [Benjamin Kimball, who ran Wilbur’s boarding house] folks thought I ever came into contact with it they wd not board me. Mrs. Jacobs got into a dark room to day where a man had it, – & when she went to her boarding place (a colored family), she was told that if she went where small pox was they could’nt board her. – It is hard work to keep away from these people for we want to know all about them & attend to the sick.
Feeling the same insecurity, the refugees would often hide those among them who showed signs of the disease. In time whole families would be exposed. Wilbur advised her antislavery society against sending more relief workers.
In her first report to the New York Friends, Jacobs described these conditions among the refugees in Alexandria as “pitiable.” Doing what was requested of her, she had kept as accurate an accounting of the donated goods as possible. (Jacobs would report distributing 2,620 garments – “large and small, this includes stockings” – during her first four months in Alexandria; of these, she calculated, 920 articles were sold, “from five cents to two dollars, the amount of money received five hundred and thirteen dollars.”) Many of those who had found government work in the fall still hadn’t been paid. For months, the government hospital would be supplied entirely with donations.
Through all this, Jacobs would make no mention of whatever abuse she faced in the Dennis household, or the other challenges she must have encountered settling in among Alexandria’s largely secessionist population. The fiery Wilbur, though, was never so inclined to hold her tongue. “Oh! what a city this is,” she complained to Barnes days after Jacobs had arrived. “There is a very bad spirit abroad here at present. – Many of the soldiers are angry because they have been so long without pay, & they lay every thing to the nigger, he has caused the war, & now he is free, & government is helping them & the soldiers are mad, & they take every opportunity to insult & abuse the negroes.” (Wilbur would add to this in the margin of the letter’s first page: “I have written this in a disturbed state of mind. Please excuse what seems strange.”)
So much for such good health. Small pox aside, Alexandria’s bad spirit alone must have been sickening. Still, with Wilbur, Jacobs would make it her home for the duration of the war. Such was her commitment to God’s poor.