My journey to Edenton, North Carolina, actually began in a women’s history class back in 2003. I was attending classes at Palomar College in San Diego County when I stumbled into the classroom of a history professor who could tell a story better than any person I have ever met. That professor, Dr. Linda Dudik, had no idea, at the time, just how much her stories would change the direction of my life. Originally a film major, I changed to history after only two semesters in her classes.
In class I always sat front and center, just as a good “non-traditional student” tends to do. By mid-semester the class had progressed to learning about women making a difference in the early 1800s. One day, the class topic was a discussion about a woman from the days of slavery. As my professor told the story, she held a book in her hands, facing the cover toward the class, and, as I listened, the image of a woman, a former slave woman, Harriet Jacobs, was truly becoming burned into my mind and soul. Sitting there, I had no idea just how much I would eventually learn about this woman and about the institution that oppressed her.
Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in Edenton, NC in 1813 to slave parents, Delilah, a slave of Margaret Horniblow, and Daniel Jacobs, a slave of Andrew Knox. She would lose her mother at the age of six, her “kind mistress” six years later, and her father within two years after that. By the age of twelve, Harriet Jacobs was the property of a man, Dr. James Norcom, an Edenton doctor, who would spend years sexually harrassing her. His sexual advances toward Jacobs would be rejected by her over and over again. In Jacobs’ effort to turn her master’s desires away from herself, she had two children with a man, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, a local lawyer and future North Carolina State Congressman. But this action only proved to make Norcom more determined to force Jacobs to bend to his will.Threatened with life in the fields of a plantation, Jacobs made the decision to run away in order to spare her children that hard life. After running away, Jacobs was hiding closer than Norcom ever knew; she hid in the garret above her grandmother’s bakery and home. The space was very cramped and there was little to no light or air, but she remained in this hiding space for six years and eleven months. Jacobs would be permanately crippled from life in this tiny space. She only left the safety of the garret and headed north to freedom after Sawyer was able to secure his children from Dr. Norcom, their master. Norcom would hunt for Jacobs for the rest of his life, but he would never find her. Jacobs would finally be freed for good after a friend, an abolishionist woman, bought Harriet’s freedom. Jacobs went on to serve as a nurse in the Civil War and once the war ended, and freedom was given to all African Americans, she dedicated her life, until her death in March of 1897, to opening schools and educating newly freed children.
As I listened to Jacobs’ story, I wondered why I had never heard of this person before? I soon learned that Harriet Jacobs had written her story, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, under the pseudonym Linda Brent. It was believed, by literature professors and historians alike, that the book was, in fact, fiction. Fortunately, in the early 1980s, Jean Fagan Yellin, Distinguished Professor Emerita of English at Pace University, became interested in the book and unearthed the facts that proved the story true. Years of research by Yellin have provided us the gift of wonderful scholarship, more than any historian could have ever hoped for before. In addition to Frederick Douglas’ narrative, which presents us with an understanding of life for the child and male slave, now, because of Yellin’s research, we have an understanding of life as a female slave. Like Douglas, Jacobs wrote her own story of slavery.
I wanted to learn more. No, I had to learn more.
Once I began studying at CSUSM, I was fortunate enough to take several classes that presented me with the opportunity to not only learn more about Harriet Jacobs, but about the institution of American slavery as well. I had been so moved by Jacobs’ story that, after graduation from college in 2008, my first journey to a historical site was to visit Edenton, North Carolina. I wanted to walk in the footsteps of the woman whose story gave my life a new and meaningful direction. Arriving in Edenton, I was immediately struck by how quaint the town still remains to this day. There is water visible in all directions as you drive into town. The people are friendly and you can walk the entire town, from water’s edge to water’s edge, in one days visit. I spent time at the Edenton Historical Society and was able to visit a small exhibit, much smaller than I had imagined or anticipated, that was dedicated to Jacobs and the telling of her remarkable story.
As I walked from one landmark to another, I found myself surprised at just how close Molly Horniblow lived from Dr. Norcom. Molly Horniblow was Harriet Jacobs’ grandmother. Had Molly’s home still been there, I could have stood on its roof and thrown a rock, really hard, and probably could have hit Norcom’s home.
Standing in the middle of the intersection at E. King and S. Broad I realized that this was where the slave market was held in Edenton. It was there that Molly Horniblow trusted a white friend to buy her own freedom when she was offered for sale after the death of her mistress. In the end, the white friend used the money Molly had saved baking goods for locals, and purchased her. Ultimately, Molly had purchased her own freedom. Once free, and with the help of a local laywer, Molly opened a bakery in the Edenton community. It was in a small space above that bakery where Jacobs hid from her harrasser.
I also took time to stand at the water’s edge and look out at the seemingly endless body of water. I tried to imagine what Harriet Jacobs must have felt, as a slave, being surrounded by water, knowing it was a body of water that acted as the barrier that bound her to slavery. Water, as far as the eye could see, was the distance she would have to travel to be truly free. I felt completely overwhelmed by this thought. My professor, the one who introduced me to Jacobs, would say I “felt history” that day and I must admit, I have to agree with her.
I also walked past the site of Norcom’s medical office, no longer the original building however, and the Horniblow Tavern, which was located immediately to the left of the Court House. The Horniblow Tavern is where Jacobs spent most of her childhood, as her grandmother was owned by and worked for the Horniblow’s.
The one structure that is still available for viewing, other than the historic court house, is the jail. I felt fortunate to be able to visit this site because it is where Jacobs’ children and brother were held, at Norcom’s request, in the weeks after she disappeared.
To look into that jail was emotionally moving. The cells seemed stacked in there so tightly, and there was very little room in each cell or within the walk ways between the cells, that is was unfathomable what life was like in there. The bunks were stacked three beds high, were made of steel, and had pads that were only about two inches thick. I just stared in as I thought about Jacobs’ children and how scared they must have been while they were kept there.
I also walked over to the old slave cemetery. I wanted to honor Jacobs’ family members who were buried there. We walked just to the edge of town and on the corner of Martin Luther King Blvd. we stopped. There, in front of us, was about thirty graves. Each grave was marked by 4′ high white posts (they looked like the legs of a table) absent of names and years of birth and death. Some of the graves had sunk in because of the time that has passed. We found a marker that had been dedicated to the grave site in 2001. On that marker, tribute was not only being paid to Jacobs, but to Molly Horniblow as well. It was very moving to see how this woman, who risked her own freedom, and her life, in order to hide her grand-daughter for so many years, was being remembered for her contribution to history.
My experience in Edenton, NC was eye-opening and meaningful. I learned more from simply walking in the footsteps of Jacobs than I anticipated and was so glad I made the trip. I have been back three times in the past two years and I know I will visit Edenton, and Harriet Jacobs, again.
But there is more to see and experience in Edenton, North Carolina. Did you know that Edenton served as the State Capital for a short period of time? Yep! But in name only. In 1722, the State Assembly voted Edenton the capital because of its location and its easy access as a sea port. But before any structures could be built in the creation of the newly named capital city, people begun moving away from Edenton, heading to another port in New Bern, NC. The State Capital remained located in New Bern until 1788, when, at a State Convention, the decision was made to relocate the capital to what was then known as Wake County. But there is still much more history to learn about and sites to visit when you head to Edenton.
Probably most notably, there is the wonderful Barker House which is located right on the water’s edge across Edenton Bay.
An Edenton local, Penelope Barker, organized a tea party that was the first political action taken by women in the colonies. The tea party, held one year after the famous Boston Tea Party, caused a huge brouhaha that cartoonists in England, believing it ridiculous that women had any sense to even be discussing the topic of freedom, made fun of the event in print.
There is a print of this image located inside the home and it is discussed as you tour the site. The Barker House is open to visitors from 10 am until 4 pm daily. It also serves as the home of the Edenton Historical Commission. Currently, the Barker House is undergoing major restoration to save the home so that many generations to come will be able to enjoy a visit to this historical spot.
You will enjoy your time in Edenton. Make sure you stop in at the Visitor’s Center and the Historical Society to gather walking maps and to learn other historic facts about this lovely town. Consider having lunch at Waterman’s Grill down on the waterfront. They make wonderful crabcakes and their desserts are to die for. Edenton, NC is a great place to spend a day! Enjoy!