Friday, September 24, 2010

Jean Fagan Yellin - Harriet Jacobs in the Refugee Camps

Jean Fagan Yellin was born into a radical Midwestern newspaper family and earned her graduate degrees at the University of Illinois. A Distinguished Professor Emerita at Pace University, New York, she has edited Uncle Tom's Cabin and other classic American texts, and is best known for her work on the fugitive slave author and activist Harriet Jacobs. She published the definitive edition of Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, establishing the book as autobiography and Jacobs as its author; wrote the biography Harriet Jacobs: A Life (2004); and edited the two-volume Harriet Jacobs Family Papers (2008). Also the author of Women and Sisters and The Intricate Knot, she is a mother, a grandmother, and a great-grandmother. With her husband, she divides her time between New York City and Sarasota, Florida.

Dr. Yellin began with a survey of the life of Harriet Jacobs and Civil War refugees in general. Born into slavery to Elijah and Delilah Jacobs in 1813, Harriet Ann Jacobs grew up in Edenton, N.C., the daughter of slaves owned by different families. After a brief account Jacob’s owners and the distressing situation she found herself in, Yellin described her escape from slavery and how she lived in hiding for 6 years and 11 months. Jacobs then wrote of her account life as a slave entitled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. After publishing this anonymous work, she went to Alexandria, VA to help with contraband refugees. After witnessing the destitute situation of the slave refugees, Jacobs became a correspondent and advocate for them. Yellin mentioned that Jacobs was enthralled by the site of black soldiers and would have really enjoyed my blog (OK, well she didn’t say that last part but I’m sure it’s true).

After the war Jacobs and others who worked with black refugees were targeted by the KKK – an element of the story that Yellin says has nearly been forgotten. Most fitting for a discussion on memory.

Recommended Reading:

Jean Fagan Yellin. Harriet Jacobs: A Life. Cambridge: Basic Books, 2004.

Ira Berlin, Barbara J. Fields, Steven F. Miller, Joseph P. Reidy, & Leslie S. Rowland, eds. “Life and Labor within Union Lines” in Free at Last: A Documentary History of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War. Edison: The Blue & Grey Press, 1997.

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