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Archive for the ‘Harriet Jacobs’ Category

I have been from this blog for too long.  Hopefully, this post will be the start of more regular updates.
I was excited to read about Jim Down’s forthcoming book Sick from Freedom in the New York Times this week.  The book addresses the health crises which freed people faced after the Civil War.  As press material for the volume explains, “With emancipation, African Americans seized the chance to move, migrating as never before. But in their journey to freedom, they also encountered yellow fever, smallpox, cholera, dysentery, malnutrition, and exposure.”  This book forms an important part of our ever-evolving understanding of Reconstruction.  I may show my students this article in the fall to help them understand historiography. (Another good book which complicates our understanding of this time is Ronald E. Butchart’s Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1861-1876, which I reviewed for the Register of the Kentucky Historical Society last year.)

Downs’ interest in this project was inspired in part by his work on the Harriet Jacobs Papers. I joined the HJ team after he had left, so we never crossed paths, except when I used his research reports to write annotation. I do wish the Times had mentioned that the papers had been published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2008, and that the volumes include important annotation about disease in the post-emancipation South.  (Instead, the article links to the kind-of-clunky website I helped put together in 2002, which has my name in the web address.  It looked ok for the time!) But it was still good to see Harriet Jacobs mentioned.

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I’ll be on whirlwind trip to New Bedford tomorrow, to speak at “Old Dartmouth Roots: A Genealogy & Local History Symposium” at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. My panel is titled “Unlikely Connections: The Grinnells and the Howlands; the Jacobses and the Knoxes.” The conversation, or at least my part, will be about Harriet Jacobs‘ two connections to New Bedford.

One connection was through the prominent Grinnell family. For years, Jacobs’ worked for Nathaniel Parker Willis and second wife, Cornelia Grinnell Willis, who had been adopted by her uncle, the merchant and politician Joseph Grinnell. Cornelia helped arrange the purchase that led to Jacobs’ freedom. Although Jacobs always resented the fact that she had to be purchased to be free, she stayed close to family throughout her life. The Willises, after Nathaniel’s death, lived in Jacobs’ boarding house in Cambridge in 1870. Bailey, the youngest Willis child who became a prominent geologist and explorer, often visited Harriet and her daughter Louisa in Washington D.C. when they were all living in Washington, D.C., in the 1890s and two of the Willis daughters–Edith and Lidian–as well as Cornelia helped care for Jacobs during her final illness. Bailey accompanied Harriet’s body from D.C. to Cambridge after her death in March 1897; she was buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Louisa stayed in contact with the family, living with Edith in her final years.

Jacobs other connection to the area was through her half-brother Elijah Knox. He was born to a freewoman in Edenton, N.C., was indentured to the age of 21, and eventually moved to New Bedford. One of his son’s was named William Jacob Knox, his middle name likely a nod to Harriet and her brother, John S. Jacobs. William had five children, all of whom were well educated and successful. Two of the brothers–William, Jr., and Lawrence–were among only 30 African American to receive Ph.D.s in Chemistry between 1919 and 1935; William worked on the Manhattan Project and was a civil rights leader in Rochester, NY, among other accomplishments.

By the way, the New Bedford Whaling Museum has a great Flickr stream.

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