Black History and the Class Struggle

Black Women's Narratives of Slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction

by Carla Wilson

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 841, 4 February 2005.

Most stories of black women's lives under slavery have never been told. Slave masters routinely brutalized black girls and women, justifying their dehumanizing treatment by labeling them "sexual savages." Stripped, beaten, raped and forced to work as "breed sows," black women suffered a double burden under slavery because of their sex. Men wrote the majority of published accounts of slave life, the most well known being the classic Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. These slave narratives were often produced under the guidance of the anti-slavery movement, using "moral suasion" against slavery to influence a church-going audience, and therefore avoided the topic of sexual oppression so as not to shock the Victorian audiences they approached for aid.

More than one hundred book-length narratives were written before the end of the American Civil War. The mere existence of former slaves' writings and oratory indicted the theories of racial and mental inferiority that justified the slave system. In this way, the act of exposing the horrors of slavery became vital to the struggle against it. During the 19th century, journalists, schoolteachers and local historians interviewed former slave women, and in the 1920s and 1930s more than two thousand former slaves were interviewed by the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers' Project and by researchers at Fisk and Southern Universities. Most of the Slave Narrative Collection was kept in typescript in the Rare Book Room of the Library of Congress for nearly 40 years. This wealth of oral history was frequently dismissed as spurious, but after the civil rights movement, and even more recently, due to film documentaries like PBS's Unchained Memories, they have found wider interest.

Two valuable slave accounts by women document the period leading up to the Civil War and through the defeat of Radical Reconstruction. One is a work of immense historical research, thoughtfully written by retired English professor Jean Fagan Yellin. Harriet Jacobs: A Life (Basic Civitas Books, 2004) expands on the events and people that shaped Jacobs' own Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (Harvard University Press, 1987). As recently as two decades ago, Jacobs' autobiographical sketch was considered an obscure work penned by white abolitionist and editor Lydia Maria Child. With Jacobs' authorship authenticated in the mid 1980s, hers became the first recognized slave narrative by a black woman.

The other story, The Bondwoman's Narrative (Warner Books, 2002), is a semi-fictional work that dates from the 1850s. Discovered at an auction by Harvard African American Studies scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., the only person to even bid on the manuscript, the book spent months on the New York Times best-seller list when it was published in 2002.

The fact that a black woman and former slave in the 19th century authored a novel has played a role in generating vigorous interest in this work of fiction. Its authentication meant that a black literary tradition existed much earlier than acknowledged. It also has much to do with the energetic quest for the identity of the author led by Gates, who rescued the book from historical oblivion.

The Bondwoman's Narrative represents an important work because it deals effectively with the role of sexual and physical oppression of black women under slavery. Moreover, unlike many published slave narratives, this book is a manuscript in the author's own handwriting, offering a unique window into the mind of a female slave. Caste, color and class—linked to widely-practiced miscegenation of master and slave—are at the core of this sentimental, gothic-style novel. An intriguing aspect of the story is the snobbery based on skin-color privileges and expectations of preferences in plantation life.

The main character of The Bondwoman's Narrative is Hannah, a North Carolina house slave serving as handmaid to a mistress passing for a white woman. She is well treated, observant and literate, attentive to every secret of her mistress. When Hannah's mistress' passing as a white woman is about to be exposed as a fraud, Hannah convinces her to escape North. They fail, and land in prison. Once captured, they are left at the mercy of the executor of the estate of the racist master, who had killed himself after learning he married a black woman.

The executor is a singular force for evil in the tale—the blackmailer of the mistress as well as a slave speculator who trades on the value of light-skinned females, thought to be passing. As an estate manager, he searches through papers to expose the lineage of women and force them onto the "fancy market" in New Orleans' high-toned bordellos. Eventually, the mistress dies from shock when faced with being sold. Hannah is then given to a government official's wife in Washington, D.C., whose ignorance and impetuosity strike a portrait in which the slave is in a more decisive role. Hannah is made to read letters and draft replies for her barely literate mistress. After shrilly demanding a new face powder be fetched from the store, the mistress finds it turns her face black. In the aftermath of this makeup malfunction, the mistress is ridiculed throughout Washington and leaves for the North Carolina plantation, where she punishes Hannah by throwing her in with the field slaves.

Hannah is confronted with being a field hand and taken as a sexual partner to a darker-skinned black man with several female mates. Earlier asked to assist fellow slaves seeking freedom in the North, Hannah had told them, "their scheme looked wild and unpromising and that I feared the result would be unfortunate." She counsels those in flight that they will only face bloodhounds and slave patrols, then bloody torture for their failure. In contrast, in reaction to her own dilemma, her response is swift: "To be driven into the fields beneath the eye and lash of the brutal overseer, and those miserable huts, with their promiscuous crowds of dirty, obscene and degraded objects, for my home I could not, I would not bear it." She flees within 48 hours of being sent into the fields and huts, passing for a white boy, then a white woman, en route to freedom in the North. The impetus for her escape underscores the influence of racial disdain within the slave community and the inculcation of racist dogmas employed as justification for the "peculiar institution."

Incidents in the Life of an Anti-Slavery Heroine

Yellin's A Life was heralded by less fanfare, but this biography powerfully reveals author and activist Harriet Jacobs as a remarkable fighter for the oppressed. Using a pseudonym, Linda Brent, Jacobs wrote her story while in domestic service with a prominent liberal New York family. Links between literacy, black self-sufficiency and political consciousness are key themes in Jacobs' evolution from fugitive slave, to author, to activist teacher of new freedmen at the Jacobs School for black Civil War "refugees" in Alexandria, Virginia. The story of Harriet Jacobs is the story of an active abolitionist fighter who lived through the Civil War, struggled to implement the promises of Radical Reconstruction and witnessed the betrayal of these promises.

Born in 1813, Harriet Jacobs did not know she was a slave until her sixth year, when her mother died and she was willed to an infant girl. Her father lived only six years longer and Jacobs fondly recalls that, although he was illiterate, he became a skilled carpenter, trusted enough by his owners to work on houses in the country and town. From him, she and her younger brother, John, learned to prize education and freedom. Jacobs' slave life in Edenton, North Carolina, reflected the hierarchy of slave society—whites ruled over blacks, free black people ranked above slaves, but the status of slaves depended heavily on their masters, their skin color and their work as domestic labor or as field hands. Her parents were classified as mulattoes, and her grandmother, Molly, a slave who operated the town's Horniblow's Tavern, worked as a cook, seamstress and wet nurse, living freely on site. Harriet learned from her grandmother how to sew as a youngster, and her mistress taught her to read and spell—skills that would eventually help transform her life.

When Harriet turned twelve, her life altered dramatically when she and her brother were sold to Dr. James Norcom. At the same time, her father was moved out to a plantation far from Edenton. Harriet found herself left to the whims of Norcom, a sexual tyrant who stalked her in an effort to make her his concubine. "He told me I was his property; that I must be subjected to his will in all things. My soul revolted against the mean tyranny. But where could I turn for protection? No matter whether the slave girl be as black as ebony or as fair as her mistress. In either case, there is no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death; all these are inflicted by fiends who bear the shape of men," Jacobs wrote.

Her account, published in 1861, revealed unspeakable acts of sexual coercion at a time when practically no one dared to speak of such things. She threw harsh light on the sexual brutality underlying reproduction of the slave system, where the violation of black women by white men stood side by side with the separation of families as a calculated, measured provocation aimed not only at women, but at the black men who necessarily reacted with deep humiliation and rage. As labor historian Jacqueline Jones has observed in Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow (Vintage, 1986): "Whites often intervened in more direct ways to upset the sexual order that black men and women created for themselves, thereby obliterating otherwise viable courtship and marriage practices.... Masters frequently practiced a form of eugenics by withholding their permission for certain marriages and arranging others." A master might prohibit a marriage for any highhanded reason, forbidding a male slave to seek a wife elsewhere, since their offspring would not belong to him but to the wife's slaveowner. Jacobs, for example, had fallen in love with a free black carpenter who proposed to marry her, but Norcom refused the lover's effort to buy her out of slavery. It is impossible to know how commonplace Jacobs' story might have actually been.

For young Harriet, a desperate act of rebellion meant encouraging and accepting the advances of Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, a youthful white lawyer of the town's aristocracy who ranked above Norcom in social standing. She bore him two children over several years. As a pro-slavery advocate in the North Carolina legislature of 1830, he joined in pushing through a wave of repressive measures aimed at control of free blacks and whites as well. New laws imposed strict penalties against teaching slaves to read or write, the harboring of runaway slaves and aiding runaways or emancipating them.

Less than three weeks after the North Carolina legislature's measures passed, the Nat Turner Revolt occurred in 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia. Deeply religious from childhood, Nat Turner was a skilled preacher and possessed some influence among local slaves. He planned attacks with a band of approximately 60 followers. After killing the family of Turner's owner, the band spread the revolt, in two days killing a total of 55 white people. The revolt was soon crushed; 13 slaves and three free blacks were hanged immediately. Turner himself escaped into the woods, but was captured, hanged, skinned and a purse made of his skin. Dozens more blacks were also killed in retaliation. The news traveled sixty miles downstream to Edenton and the repression that followed was roused with fifes blaring and drums sounding as white mobs formed roving bands of armed slave patrollers imposing martial law.

Fearful that Turner's revolt would inspire others to arms, slave masters put Edenton under round-the-clock patrols, with house-to-house searches. Jacobs recalls how the fear of Turner's revolt prompted slave owners to conclude "that it would be well to give the slaves enough of religious instruction to keep them from murdering their masters." Worried that any congregating of blacks meant seeds planted for insurrection, the slave masters reduced to rubble the meetinghouse blacks had built communally that served as their church; the congregation was forced to attend the white churches.

Harriet's own situation became more precarious as she grew sick and tired of trying to avoid sexual servitude under Norcom. Finally she fled to a crawlspace concealed beneath her grandmother's roof—a cell roughly seven feet wide, nine feet long and three feet high. There she would spend the next seven years, only leaving the house once. She subsequently escaped to the North in June 1842 and ended in the care of Philadelphia's Vigilant Committee, but as with many who traveled the Underground Railroad, she never divulged her route.

Abolitionist Fighter

Once in the free states of the North, Jacobs lived in constant trepidation, fearing Norcom and his heirs would seek to claim their "property." Her immediate focus was on finding her children, who had been sent North as servants to their father's kin. At first, Jacobs avoided the abolitionist circles, after an initial encounter in Philadelphia included a warning from Reverend Jeremiah Durham that she should avoid revealing her sexual history because some might treat her with "contempt." Later, she joined her brother, John S., who had escaped Norcom before her and had become a well-known anti-slavery activist. He often shared platforms with abolitionist Frederick Douglass and also worked on the North Star. Eventually becoming a frequent letter contributor to the New York Daily Tribune, she gained courage to write her autobiography and later served as a correspondent for William Lloyd Garrison's the Liberator, as part of activist circles in Rochester, New York and Boston. Her views were no doubt shaped by her involvement with organized reformers from the anti-slavery and women's rights struggles in Rochester.

These abolitionists were part of a broad, bourgeois social radicalization among the 19th-century heirs to the Enlightenment, Protestant religious ideals and the American Revolution. Although opposition to slavery was by no means as widespread in the 1830s as it was to become immediately before the Civil War, nonetheless many prominent men, such as the wealthy Tappan brothers of New York and Gerrit Smith, the biggest landowner in the North, had joined the movement by the middle of the decade. Garrison understood that the Constitution was a pro-slavery document but thought that the institution could be done away with peacefully through "moral suasion." The movement split in the 1840s around the questions of women's rights and how to end slavery. Garrison believed the pro-slavery U.S. Constitution should be abolished and that the North should expel the South. Another wing, represented by eminent men like the Tappan brothers, excluded women from office within their organization, was against women's rights and wanted to orient struggles toward political work in Congress. On the left wing of the abolitionist movement were militant ex-slaves, free blacks and white abolitionists—revolutionary fighters like Frederick Douglass and John Brown who became convinced that the fight must be against the whole system of slavery, by armed force, including arming black slaves. Douglass and the insurrectionist wing were thoroughgoing egalitarians and, therefore, were also the most consistent supporters of women's rights.

The Jacobs' move to Rochester coincided with her brother John's hiring by the abolitionists' Anti-Slavery Office and Reading Room. Jacobs stayed with her brother's friends, Isaac and Amy Post, frequent hosts to executive sessions of the Western New York State Anti-Slavery Society. A major feature of their work in the winter of 1849 was mounting protests against school segregation. At the time, the threat of a national compromise over slavery also loomed, as abolitionists countered pro-slavery arguments against expanding slavery to territories seized in the 1848 Mexican War. Nonetheless, Congress passed the Compromise of 1850, which maintained slavery in these areas. Measures included a more brutal version of the Fugitive Slave Law, which made it a crime for federal marshals not to arrest an alleged runaway slave and for anybody to assist a runaway, while also denying a suspected runaway any legal rights.

Amid this climate, Jacobs finally got her freedom when her close friend and employer negotiated the purchase of her freedom for three hundred dollars. She concludes her autobiographical account a freedwoman. According to Yellin, the draft text ended with a tribute to John Brown, but Lydia Maria Child, her editor, convinced Jacobs to drop it. Was this editorial measure a reflection of continuing debate among the pacifist Garrisonians over what course to take in the unfolding conflict?

It was certainly to Jacobs' credit, and an indication of her political allegiances, that she recognized the significance of Brown's October 1859 raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). In the battle that followed, Brown was wounded and ten of Brown's men—including two of his sons—were killed. Militarily defeated and hanged in punishment, Brown's political mission to destroy slavery by force of arms was spectacularly brought to conclusion by more than 200,000 freed slaves who fought in the Civil War.

At the outset, the "war between the states" was being fought only to "preserve the Union," and President Abraham Lincoln only opposed the extension of slavery. Karl Marx understood that the Civil War was at root a "conflict between the system of slavery and the system of free labor." Abolitionists sought to transform the war into a war of emancipation. Frederick Douglass insisted: "Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves." It took two years of ignominious defeats led by politically unreliable Union Army generals to convince Lincoln of the necessity of freeing the slaves. After it became clear that the North could not win in any other way, he declared on 22 September 1862 all slaves in the Confederacy would be free on the first of January, 1863. Almost as important as freedom itself was the government's decision to form regiments of black soldiers. About 180,000 black soldiers served in the Union Army and as many as 29,000 men joined the Union Navy. This helped to turn the tide of battle. The Civil War and Reconstruction broke the class power of the slave South. It was the last great bourgeois revolution, the second American Revolution; the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments were the legal codification of the revolutionary gains won at riflepoint by the interracial Union Army. The war and its aftermath ushered in the most democratic period for black people in U.S. history, underlining that a truly egalitarian radical vision of social reconstruction ultimately could not be fulfilled by a capitalist ruling class.

Civil War Years

Harriet Jacobs' role in the anti-slavery struggles and in the emerging Freedmen's Bureau was that of a political field worker. In October 1861, after Union General William Tecumseh Sherman led his troops in an attack on Confederate Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island, a decisive step was made in the Civil War. Sherman's army drew behind it hundreds of former slaves who set up camps on the Sea Islands along the Carolina Coast. Union authorities set up a Department of the South, taking over some 195 plantations, employing 10,000 former slaves to raise cotton and auctioning land off to Northerners and a few freedmen with a bit of money.

Sherman's occupation of Port Royal, South Carolina, became a starting point for the abolitionists and slaves to work together on Southern terrain. Historians have called this "Port Royal Experiment" a "dress rehearsal for Reconstruction." As W.E.B. DuBois later observed in Black Reconstruction in America (Atheneum, 1983): "The Negroes were willing to work and did work, but they wanted land to work, and they wanted to see and own the results of their toil. It was here and in the West and the South that a new vista opened. Here was a chance to establish an agrarian democracy in the South." It became clear to Jacobs that it was in places like Port Royal that the future of her people would be determined. She looked at reports from Port Royal and turned her eyes toward Washington. In the spring of 1862, Lincoln had not yet issued his Emancipation Proclamation, but in states that remained loyal to the Union, Congress had designated as "contrabands of war" any men, women and children escaping from Southern masters.

Jacobs' moving report of "Life Among the Contrabands," printed in the Liberator, details the chaos among these "refugees." She spent the spring and summer in Washington, setting up hospitals with the newly established Freedmen's Association. Her work often entailed a struggle against the civilian and military hierarchy in the refugee camps. The government-appointed superintendent of "contrabands" registered and hired people out as workers, with little attention to their needs. Jacobs spent her mornings in a small ground-floor room where "men, women and children lie here together, without a shadow of those rites which we give to our poorest dead. There they lie, in the filthy rags they wore from the plantation. Nobody seems to give it a thought. It is an everyday occurrence, and the scenes have become familiar."

Later that year, she moved to Union-occupied Alexandria and while distributing supplies of clothing and food, Jacobs began to envision a sustained mission. She would produce several letters over the next four years of work, articulating the freedmen's dreams for equality, land, education, jobs and housing. In lengthy letters to Lydia Maria Child she reported what she'd seen of black life, confident her writings would be printed in the abolitionist press. With Alexandria under Union occupation the people still suffered humiliations: "In return for their kindness and ever-ready service, they often receive insults, and sometimes beatings, and so they have learned to distrust those who wear the uniform of the U.S.," she notes. And, allowing herself a moment of outrage: "Oh, when will the white man learn to know the hearts of my abused and suffering people!" By midsummer, the federal superintendent in Alexandria was replaced, with improvements instigated from her collaboration with the Freedmen's Association.

In the summer of 1864, as Union Armies drew closer to taking Richmond, black "refugees" were drafted in response to threats on Alexandria, joining Union forces to defend the city against the Confederacy. Jacobs and her daughter Louisa organized the first commemoration of British West Indian Emancipation, featuring the presentation of a flag to the Colored Hospital—named L'Ouverture for the Haitian liberator—that had recently opened as a receiving place for the Colored Division of the Ninth Army Corps. She presented the flag to the surgeon in chief, addressing herself to black men in Union blues:

"Soldiers, what we have got came through the strength and valor of your right arms. Three years ago this flag had no significance for you, we could not cherish it as our emblem of freedom. You then had not part in the bloody struggle for your country, your patriotism was spurned; but to-day you are in arms for the freedom of your race and the defence of your country—to-day this flag is significant to you. Soldiers you have made it the symbol of freedom for the slave."

The Alexandria celebration was among many commemorations at which black fighters began to forge a sense of struggle not only for an end to slavery, but also to claim equal rights as American citizens.

Through the remaining days of the war, Jacobs volunteered in Alexandria as a visiting relief worker in the camp and in the hospitals. Freedmen there had already begun building a school and meetinghouse, which she pushed to find funding for at the first congress of the Women's National Loyal League. Jacobs coordinated aid with the goal of opening a free school under black leadership, volunteering her daughter Louisa and Virginia Lawton, the daughter of old Boston friends, as two "colored teachers." Jacobs School's doors opened to seventy-five students in January 1864. Given her name recognition among readers of Incidents, the school was featured in the reform press, with Alexandria becoming a regular stop on tours of the conquered South. A photo of Jacobs among her charges was carefully taken to publicize the ability of former slaves to become exemplary citizens. At the time, the photo hung prominently in the offices of the Freedman's Record. By the end of March 1865, Congress established the Freedmen's Bureau, putting it in charge of relief and oversight for former slaves in the South.

Radical Reconstruction Overturned

Harriet and Louisa Jacobs later went to Savannah, where, Yellin notes, "both control of the schools and control of the land were at stake." Against local government resistance, they opened the Lincoln School, a black-run institution, and attempted to set up an orphanage and home for the elderly. Military rule ended just before Jacobs and her daughter arrived and, though posing as a protector, the Union Army also would be wielded to aid the city's powerful elite and stymie black efforts at freedom. The land question features in many of Jacobs' dispatches because the land with freedmen's settlements where schools were located was soon turned over to their old masters. Louisa's Lincoln School survived, but by January 1866, all freedmen were ordered to sign contracts for their labor.

The brief labor contracts, Jacobs wrote, "are very unjust. They are not allowed to have a boat or musket. They are not allowed to own a horse, cow, or pig. Many of them already own them, but must sell them if they remain on the plantations." The black population was disarmed. Backed by the Freedmen's Bureau, "free labor" meant that most blacks worked in cotton production, suffering working conditions akin to slave exploitation of prewar years. In exchange for backbreaking field work, the freedmen gave the former masters two-thirds of the crop, kept a third, then saw rations and rent deducted, resulting in a cycle of debt bondage.

However, Reconstruction posed a possibility of socially revolutionary transformations in the South: the regional ruling class, based on land and slaves, had been militarily defeated; under the occupying Northern power, black men and women, formerly slaves, exercised political rights for the first time in the South. Before the defeat of Reconstruction, many political offices in the South were held by black men.

Reconstruction not only brought about voting rights for black men and even many poor illiterate Southern white men but also ushered in the establishment of the South's first public schools, liberalized the South's barbaric penal code and reformed the planters' property tax system. These measures allowed for real prospects for schooling, land and jobs for black freedmen. But northern capitalists betrayed the promise of Reconstruction, allowing it to be physically smashed, aided by forces such as the Ku Klux Klan. In 1877, the last of the Union troops were withdrawn from Southern occupation, marking a compromise that put Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House. From this defeat of Reconstruction grew the postwar Southern system of sharecropping, poll taxes, chain gangs, lynch law and "separate but equal"—i.e., unequal—Jim Crow facilities.

During Reconstruction, Jacobs and other female abolitionists working as teachers risked their lives to participate in freeing black people from the chains of bondage—their fight for free quality education was put front and center. But the sharpest debate raged over the question of land ownership. Freedmen and destitute white Unionist Southerners wanted the secessionists' estates confiscated, as at Port Royal, and distributed to them. Triumphant Northern rulers, however, would not permit an attack on "property rights," particularly as Northerners and Northern banks were grabbing up a good deal of Southern property. Intensive exploitation of black agricultural labor was allowed as the only way to rebuild the Southern economy, rather than industrial development or capital investment in modernization of agriculture.

This failure and betrayal of Reconstruction perpetuated the oppression of blacks as a color caste at the bottom of American capitalist society. This racial division, with whites on top of blacks, has been and continues to be the main historical obstacle to the development of political class consciousness among the American proletariat. It will take a third American Revolution, led by a multiracial workers party against capitalism itself, to break the fetters on blacks, women and all the oppressed.

Jacobs served with valor in the anti-slavery battles through Radical Reconstruction, but her story also fell victim to its defeat. At the time of her death in 1897, her name was barely remembered in the Boston abolitionist circles she once frequented. Even in her obituary, the Jacobs School and her relief work during the Civil War and Reconstruction were completely omitted. As the years passed, the memory of Jacobs faded and photos and records of her Alexandria school were lost. Even her book came to be seen as Child's.

Anyone who has ever wondered how black people managed to struggle and survive the hideous tortures meted out during slavery and afterward would gain a lot from reading these books. They offer inspiration to a new generation of fighters facing the daunting task of toppling the dominance of capitalist exploitation and sexual oppression today. Though the Civil War smashed slavery, the dreams of men and women like Jacobs remain to be realized. Finish the Civil War—For black liberation in a workers' America!

ICL Home Page