Servant Leadership Profile: Harriet Jacobs – Black History Month

Harriet Jacobs was an African American who escaped slavery, was an influential abolitionist & ardent educator. She wrote "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl".

Note: In honor of Black History Month, I am highlighting great servant leaders from African American history. Today’s recognition goes to Harriet Ann Jacobs.

Who Was Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Ann Jacobs was an African American who escaped slavery, was an influential abolitionist and ardent educator. She also wrote the first autobiography on the atrocities experienced by female slaves. She is probably best know for that book: “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl“, which included graphic detail of the sexual harassment and abuse endured by female slaves. She was also well known for improving the lives of freed slaves, largely through her fervent dedication to developing schools and working opportunities for freed slaves.

Harriet Jacobs Servant LeaderWhat Harriet Did

Harriet’s suffering became her motivation and platform for fighting slavery, advancing education and civil rights for the freed slaves. Her own experience in slavery included great personal afflictions ranging from the sexual harassment she suffered from her masters to the seven years she spent hiding in a crawl space, to remain in eyesight and earshot of her own children. Her autobiography was popular with abolitionists and played a major role in garnering support for the opposition to slavery – especially from England. Her work did not end with the emancipation of slaves. She fought for and obtained educational institutions for the freed and established substantial improvements in their working and living conditions in many locations. Included among her accomplishments are:

  • Her book, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” was well received, especially in England and played a major role in the fight against slavery
  • Jacobs played an important role feeding and supporting runaway slaves and poor, freed Blacks in the Washington DC area
  • Harriet seemed to be constantly fighting for additional relief, supplies and other benefits for runaway slaves and the poor freed Black men and women
  • She also helped promote the welfare of poor Blacks in the Boston area
  • Jacobs’ daughter (Louisa Matilda) and a friend (Sarah Virginia Lawton) spent their lives developing education for the emancipated.
  • She was also among the earliest community organizers for African Americans, focused on the building of churches, hospitals, schools and homes for newly freed slaves
  • Jacobs recognized that educating people of color was the primary method by which they could improve their lives
  • She fought for black patient rights in hospitals
  • She served as an inspiration to the community of recently freed slaves

Servant Leadership Quotes by Harriet Jacobs

  • “Cruelty is contagious in uncivilized communities.”
  • “I would rather drudge out my life on a cotton plantation, till the grave opened to give me rest, than to live with an unprincipled master and a jealous mistress.”
  • “Death is better than slavery.”
  • “There are no bonds so strong as those which are formed by suffering together.”
  • “My master had power and law on his side; I had a determined will. There is might in each.”

Why Harriet Jacobs is a Servant Leader

Harriet’s self sacrifice and fearlessness in publishing her autobiography was a selfless means by which to promote the absolution movement. She inspired slaves and the freed poor everywhere with her example and motivated supporters of the cause to help with everything from the underground railroad to temporary housing, education and health improvements. Her torch was carried on by her daughter and others she inspired. Her actions expressed many servant leadership characteristics, chief among them: healing, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people and a focus on building community.

Further Reading on Harriet Jacobs


Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner

Ben Lichtenwalner is the founder and principal of Modern Servant Leader and Radiant Forest, LLC. He has studied and promoted servant leadership awareness and adoption for over 20 years. He is the author of 2 leadership books and has 2 decades of corporate management and leadership experience. His corporate experience spans CIO, VP, Director, and many management roles at Fortune 500, INC 500, and Nonprofits. Ben’s education includes a B.S. in Management Science & Information Systems from Penn State University and an MBA from Lehigh University. Ben's Full Profile Here: About Ben Lichtenwalner

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