Dean`s Message

The Legacies of Slavery and Sisterhood: The Life and Work of Harriet Jacobs
Dean Nira Herrmann, PhD

Dean Nira Herrmann, PhD

Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Jacobs

A conference that recasts Jacobs’ role as a major contributor to
American Literature and Black Activism
October 6 & 7, 2006

Based on the exceptional work of Pace Professor Emerita of English, Jean Fagan Yellin, PhD, Dyson College is organizing a two-day conference that will examine and emphasize Harriet Jacobs’ place in American history and literature. To this day, Harriet Jacobs, the first American slave woman to write an autobiography, is the only African-American woman held in slavery whose papers are known to exist.

Drawing eminent historians and literary scholars from across the country, “The Legacies of Slavery and Sisterhood: The Life and Work of Harriet Jacobs’ will include six panel discussions and a roundtable on the current implications of her writing and life. Actress Ruby Dee will give a reading of Jacobs’ harrowing account of her escape from slavery in 1842, from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself, first published pseudonymously in 1861. Incredibly, Jacobs hid herself in a three-foot-high crawl space above a storeroom, living there for seven years before fleeing the South.

I hope that you will consider joining me in attending this remarkable conference. As the signature event that celebrates Pace’s Centennial Anniversary, this conference is part of a Pace Centennial lecture and performance series called “100 Conversations.” Both the conference itself and the closing session and reception with Ruby Dee are open to the public for a nominal fee. For reservations and more information about the conference participants, including some of the nation’s foremost authorities on slavery and authors whose works have formed the basis of the recent public television series “Slavery and the Making of America,” visit the Web site, or contact Christopher Malone, PhD, at

To give you an idea of the import of Harriet Jacobs’ extraordinary life and the accomplishments of Distinguished Professor Yellin in elucidating that life, here is some background information: Incidents was thought to be a novel written by Lydia Maria Child, a white abolitionist writer whose authorship commentators had assumed for more than 125 years. Professor Yellin discovered and recognized archived documents from the Civil War era that validated the authenticity of the events in Incidents as being about a real person. She further determined that the person, Harriet Jacobs, was in fact the author as well. In 1987, Professor Yellin published a classic edition of Incidents with Harvard University Press.

Intrigued and inspired by Incidents, Professor Yellin decided to learn more about Jacobs’ astonishing story: Harriet Jacobs lived as a slave, a fugitive targeted for kidnapping, a writer, a reformer, a lecturer and an activist. She worked closely with abolitionists and early feminists, provided emergency relief, founded The Jacobs Free School for blacks in Alexandria, Virginia, and raised funds for the black community. Her reform and philanthropic efforts were acknowledged when she was named to the executive committee of the Women’s Loyal National League, headed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, in 1864.

In 2004 Professor Yellin published the widely acclaimed Harriet Jacobs: A Life. The biography won the prestigious Frederick Douglass Book Prize awarded by Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, the first biography ever to do so, and also won the William Sanders Scarborough Prize of the Modern Language Association.

“The Legacies of Slavery and Sisterhood: The Life and Work of Harriet Jacobs” conference will honor the accomplishments of two very different but strongly linked women whose lives have been intertwined: Jean Fagan Yellin and Harriet Jacobs. Their writings illustrate their determination to tell a powerful story – one that continues to be relevant in today’s society.

I look forward to seeing you there.