Reflections on “A life so noble,” The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers launch event

The following is a guest post from Michelle Lanier, curator of cultural history with the North Carolina Division of State Historic Sites and Properties. Along with Historic Edenton Site Manager Linda Jordan Eure, Lanier helped to organize the launching of The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers (edited by Jean Fagan Yellin) on November 22, 2008. Photos and podcast links follow her essay.

“I never would consent to give my past life to any one for I would not do it with out giving the whole truth.”–Harriet Jacobs

“We just didn’t have that story before; and now we do.” –Jean Fagan Yellin

One of my goals as a public historian is to help create spaces where visitors can experience emotional impacts, discover connections to the past, or have epiphanies of historic relevance. In such moments, an internal bell rings out in the face of human experience preserved in the amber of historic preservation. I’ve had my share of these moments. I have them at Stagville, when I touch my fingertips to the indentation left by the hand of a slave as he made a brick. I have them when I walk up the chipped, granite steps of the North Carolina State Capitol, knowing that in the span of less than a decade, both enslaved black men and free black legislators surmounted the worn yet elegant path I can climb today. These touchstones stay with us.

The story of Harriet Jacobs has also served as a touchstone to the history of my state and nation. As an African American woman and writer, I hold fast to a notion of legacy, and the charge to rise to literary and historic heights with an eye towards community responsibility and service.

I first read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, at Spelman College, an historically black college for women that challenges students to “Enter to learn, go forth to serve.” My English professor, Dr. Gloria Wade-Gayles, held up Incidents as an example of dignified truth-speaking as a form of survival and activism. For me, in this early reading, the dénouement occurred when Harriet Jacobs chose to “escape” from slavery by hiding in an attic for nearly seven years. That was it for me; the finale to the argument that slavery was not just peculiar, but inhumane to the extent that one would seek to be stored away, like a trunk of fine linen, rather than breathe the air of a land that held one captive.

Years later, graced with the further unfolding of Jean Fagan Yellin’s meticulous scholarship at the Harriet Jacobs Conference in 2006, I slowly began to have my own historic epiphany. It went something like this.

“Excuse me; did you say that Jacobs returned to Edenton to help formerly enslaved African Americans?

“And did you say that Jacobs supported and cheered on the efforts of U.S. Colored Troops and wrote about the conditions of refugees during the war?

“And am I to understand that this woman, who spent nearly seven years in an attic, also had the fortitude to create schools for black children in Virginia and Georgia?”

The answers were all “yes,” “yes,” and “yes” again. Jacobs for me, in that moment of clarity, became the link in the landscape of communal memory, between Harriet Tubman and Anne Frank.

The works and words came home

As the Curator of Cultural History with the North Carolina Division of State Historic Sites and Properties, I have the opportunity to work with Historic Edenton, one of twenty-seven sites in the division. Edenton: the town where truths, as documented in Incidents, unfolded on its streets, in its prison, from its bay, and in its courthouse. And so, when on November 22, 2008, we launched the comprehensive treasures found in The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers, the clarity and enlightenment and emotional impact of Jacobs’s life and Yellin’s historic offering came full circle. There was a certain lightness and hopefulness to the day as we looked around to see scholars of all hues and ages in the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse, where Jacobs’s grandmother received her freedom. There was a certain gravitas to the day, as we bore witness to the image of U.S. Colored Troops re-enactors bearing the American flag. In the balance, at the nexus of documented oppressions and liberations, were the ringing out of Jacobs’s works and words, from one woman writer to another, but offered to all of us present.

Michelle Lanier
North Carolina Division of State Historic Sites and Properties


The North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources has more media features available if you’d like to learn more. You can listen to an interview with Jean Fagan Yellin by Fay Mitchell, listen to an excerpt from the Papers, and read an article from Humanities magazine about the project Jean Fagan Yellin undertook to publish The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers.

What follows are photographs from the launch event in Edenton, NC, on November 22, 2008.

Jean Fagan Yellin, editor of The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers
Jean Fagan Yellin, editor of The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers
Historical Marker featuring Harriet Jacobs - Maritime underground railroad, Chowan River
Historical marker of the maritime underground railroad at Edenton harbor. Harriet Jacobs spent seven years in hiding in a cramped attic before her eventual escape from slavery in 1842 on a schooner bound for Philadelphia.
Honor Guard, North Carolina U.S. Colored Troops Re-enactors
Honor Guard, North Carolina U.S. Colored Troops Re-enactors
1767 Chowan County Courthouse, National Historic Landmark. Harriet Jacobs\'s grandmother, Molly Horniblow, was freed from slavery here.
1767 Chowan County Courthouse, National Historic Landmark, Edenton, NC. Harriet Jacobs's grandmother, Molly Horniblow, was freed from slavery here.