Harriet Ann Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina, USA in 1813. She had a complex and troubled upbringing, and in 1835, aged twenty-two, fled from her sexually abusive slave master. Jacobs lived for seven years in her grandmother's attic, before escaping to the North by boat to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1842.
After reaching the North in 1842, Jacobs was taken in by anti-slavery friends from the Philadelphia Vigilant Committee. In 1849, she joined her brother in Rochester, New York, where she became part of the Anti-Slavery Society. She helped support the Anti-Slavery Reading Room by speaking to audiences in Rochester to educate people and to raise money.
Following the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Jacobs feared for her safety, and returned to New York to hide from her slave-masters. In late 1852 or early 1853, a friend suggested that Jacobs should write her life story. She also suggested that Jacobs contact the author Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was working on A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. When Stowe wanted to use Jacobs' history in her own book, Jacobs decided to write her own account.
In June 1853, Jacobs was motivated to respond to an article in the New York Tribune by former first lady Julia Tyler, called 'The Women of England vs. the Women of America'. Her letter was her first published work. Over the next few years, Jacobs began composing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. She began publishing autobiographical accounts in the New York Tribune, but her reports of sexual abuse were considered too shocking for the average newspaper reader of the day, and the paper ceased publishing her account.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Jacobs' most famous work, was published in 1861. The narrative was designed to appeal to middle class white Christian women in the North, focusing on the impact of slavery on women's chastity and sexual virtues. Christian women could perceive how slavery was a temptation to masculine lusts.
During the Civil War, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl became extremely popular among abolitionists. Throughout the war, Jacobs worked in various roles helping poor blacks and fleeing slaves. She also founded the successful Alexandria School. Jacobs died in 1897, aged 84.