Saturday, December 27, 2014

Threads of Memory 12: Rochester Star for Amy Post & Harriet Jacobs

Rochester Star by Jean Stanclift
This is the last block in the 2014 Threads of Memory BOM

The patterns were free online for two years but now I am offering them for sale in two formats
at my Etsy shop. Buy a PDF or a Paper Pattern through the mail here:

In 1849 in Rochester, New York, two women spent many hours in intense conversation. One in her forties, the other in her thirties, the women began their talks with little in common.

Amy Post (1802-1897) in later life

Amy Kirby Post was a white New Yorker, born a Quaker, the wife of a prosperous druggist and mother and stepmother to a flourishing family.

Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) in later life

Harriet Jacobs, the younger woman, was born a slave in North Carolina and had rarely enjoyed the luxuries of a family life.

"The old Post residence on Sophia Street---the headquarters
of the Underground Railway" [in Rochester]

Amy Post and her husband took in Harriet as a boarder and kept her as a friend. Despite Amy's conviction that, "The Empire State is a shabby place of refuge for the oppressed," Rochester offered temporary shelter to the fugitive and Amy offered a sympathetic ear.

As the months went by Harriet revealed more of her past, a difficult thing to do as much of her story concerned sexual obsession. When she was about fifteen years old she'd attracted the notice of her master James Norcom who demanded her sexual services.

 James Norcom of Edenton, North Carolina

Harriet understood the system of concubinage inherent in slavery and sought the protection of another white lover, Samuel Sawyer, a lawyer with a higher social status. With Sawyer she had two children. Obtaining their freedom became an overriding goal in a life made unbearable by her master's lust and her mistress's jealousy. 

Norcum's second wife Mary

Southern Diarist Mary Chesnut described the system:

"Every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in everybody's household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop from the clouds or pretends so to think..."

Even proper Quaker women like Amy Post knew Harriet's story of sex in slavery was not unusual. Many enslaved women were driven to escape by an owner's grasping hands. Harriet's tale was remarkable because once free of Norcom's desires she did not go far.

Sawyer tricked Norcom into selling him his children Joseph and Louisa. He sent them to live with Harriet's free grandmother. Refusing to leave her children, Harriet hid in a crawl space over their porch for years. Norcom never gave up looking for her, posting an advertisement describing her carefully:

"She is a light mulatto, 31 years of age, about 5 feet 4 inches high, of a thick and corpulent habit, having on her head a thick covering of black hair that curls, but which can be easily combed straight. She speaks easily and fluently and has an agreeable carriage and address. Being a good seamstress she has been accustomed to dress well, has a variety of very fine clothes made in the prevailing fashion, and will probably appear if abroad tricked out in gay and fashionable finery…."

Harriet asked friends to post letters from northern cities to fool Norcom into believing she had fled to a free state, when in reality she lived in a cramped attic close by. Sawyer, elected to Congress and newly married, arranged to have the children travel north. 

Harriet herself ran first to Philadelphia and New York City and then north to Rochester where a brother lived. Rochester in 1849 was an exciting place, a thriving mill town on the falls of the Genesee River, a mecca for antislavery activists where Frederick Douglass, the most famous of fugitive slaves, published his North Star newspaper. The city located near the Erie Canal, Lake Ontario and the Canadian border, was an important way station on the Underground Railroad.

Harriet spent her months in Rochester managing an antislavery reading room above the North Star offices where a group of women met every Thursday to sew items for sale in the library gift shop and at the antislavery fairs.

Reformers like Amy heard many stories from fugitive slaves and abused women but she recalled that Harriet's tale was painful to hear and exceptionally painful to tell. "Even in talking with me, she wept so much, and seemed to suffer such mental agony, that I felt her story was too sacred to be drawn from her by inquisitive questions, and I left her free to tell as much, or as little, as she chose."

As the story unfolded Amy encouraged Harriet to write it down and publish it, "but the weeping woman demurred: 'You know a woman can whisper her cruel wrongs in the ear of a dear friend much easier than she can record them for the world to read.' "

Federal laws tightened and runaways in Rochester realized the danger. Her brother went west to California and Harriet returned to the larger city of New York where she hoped to disappear. Without Amy to hear her, she spent her evenings writing out the story.

After the malevolent Doctor died in 1850 his family accepted a friend's payment for her freedom. Harriet gained the confidence to send her autobiographical sketches to the editor of the New York Tribune. Readers were shocked by her frank accounts of sex and slavery.

With Amy's encouragement she collected the essays into a book called Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, published just before the Civil War under the pen name Linda Brent. In a preface, editor Lydia Maria Child emphasized that the book was true despite its far-fetched plot. Amy added a short account of how she first heard Harriet's stories, also testifying about the book's accuracy. But few readers believed the book was anything more than fiction.

Harriet's younger child, Louisa Matilda Jacobs (1833-1913)

During the Civil War Harriet and her daughter Louisa assisted in relief efforts for freed slaves and both spent the rest of their lives in frustrating efforts to obtain civil rights. Most of Harriet's friends and acquaintances in her post-War homes of Washington and Cambridge, Massachusetts, were unaware of her connection to "Linda Brent's" scandalous book, which gradually came to be forgotten until recent years.

Rochester Star by Becky Brown

Rochester Star is a new angle on an old star design. The block honors the friendship between two remarkable women and the town where their paths crossed.

What We Can Learn About the Underground Railroad from Amy Post's & Harriet Jacob's Story

Amy's persistence in encouraging Harriet to publish her story may seem insensitive but she and other reformers realized that the best way to sway public opinion about slavery's injustice was to reveal how cruelly women suffered. Once the mid-19th-century concept of women's sensibility was extended to enslaved women, religious Northerners began to seriously question the "monstrous system." Many stories and pictures focused upon the common theme of women sold as concubines.

Make a Quilt a Month
Set nine blocks in the Rochester Star pattern side by side, but focus the shading on a central star to create a 48" wall quilt. You'll need 2 lights, (yellow and sky blue here), 2 mediums (ochre and blue) and 2 darks (rust and navy). Add a 2" inch finished navy inner border and a 4" finished outer border.

This is the last block in the 2014 Threads of Memory. We'll be discussing sets next month and looking at everyone's finished tops and quilts.

Joseph Jacobs, Harriet's son with Samuel Sawyer, was born in 1829.

Read Harriet Jacobs's story in Jean Fagan Yellin's book Harriet Jacobs: A Life.
Harriet is above the x in the cover photo.

Harriet Jacobs and Amy Post were remarkably prolific writers. Through fortunate circumstances as a child in slavery, Harriet was taught to read. Through even more fortunate circumstances many of her letters have survived. Pace University is sponsoring The Harriet Jacobs Papers Project to publish those letters in a two-volume set. You can read about the project and see a photograph of Harriett by clicking on this link:

Almost 2,000 of the Post family letters (including 33 of Harriet's letters to Amy) are in the collection of the University of Rochester. They are not available on line but you can read much more about the Post family at the University web site by clicking on the following link:

You can read Harriet Jacobs' book online at the web page of the New York Public Library's Schomburg Collection. Once you arrive at the home page of their African-American Women Writers archive, enter the site by hitting the area marked "click," and then where you see "Browse By Title" click on "Select Menu." When the list appears scan down to the title Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and click. You can see Amy Post's part of the book by clicking on the Appendix. Begin the process by clicking on this link:


Chantal said...

WOW! What a life this woman had. Poor soul! It really put my life into perspective. Thank you so much for sharing.
One of the link send me to a website written in Japanese or Chinese.

WoolenSails said...

That is a sad story and a remarkable woman, for all she went through. I bookmarked the library page, so I can go back and read the books they have.


Barbara Brackman said...

I fixed that bookmark

Judy said...

Such sad lives of the women in those times, but even today there is so much human suffering. It doesn't seem that man hasn't changed his ways.

Mrs. D said...

Thank you for posting Harriet Jacobs's story, and the quilt instructions. Wow--so much information in one post! How wonderful.

Last November while I was quilting in my sewing room, I listened (via my Kindle) to Harriet Ann Jacobs' book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. As I read your post today, I immediately recognized Harriet's story (Linda) and was so pleased to see a photo of Harriet. Very nice! It was emotional seeing portraits of the people who tortured her. But wonderful to see Amy Post's photo as well. Congratulations for creating this post and giving me an opportunity to try the Rochester Star quilt block. Many thanks. Mrs. D

Jeanne said...

Thank you for another great series! I learned a lot, and challenged myself doing the blocks.
Looking forward to the next series. Thanks again, Jeanne

Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading the history of the incredible people you provide in your emails.
I tried printing the two pieces of the block but could not get it to enlarge to the correct size.


Becky in VA said...

I just finished reading "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" a very powerful account about Harriet Jacob's life. So glad she was encouraged by her dear friend to write about it.

FabricandFlowers said...

What an amazing story. Your blog is very powerful. Thank you for the time you put into telling the stories of these women.