Harriet Jacobs and Elizabeth Keckly: The Material and Emotional Realities of Childhood in Slavery

Harriet Jacobs was the first woman to write a slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). She was born a slave in 1813 in Edenton, North Carolina, and died free in Washington, D. C., at the age of eighty-four.

Elizabeth Keckly was born into slavery in 1818 near Petersburg, Virginia. She learned to sew from her mother, an expert seamstress enslaved in the Burwell family. After thirty years as a Burwell slave, Keckly purchased her and her only son's freedom. Later, when Keckly moved to Washington, D. C., she became an exclusive dress designer whose most famous client was First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckly’s enduring fame results from her close relationship with Mrs. Lincoln, documented in her memoir, Behind the Scenes, or Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House (1868).

In this lesson, students learn firsthand about the childhoods of Jacobs and Keckly from reading excerpts from their autobiographies. They practice reading for both factual information and making inferences from these two primary sources. They will also learn from a secondary source about commonalities among those who experienced their childhood in slavery. By putting all this information together and evaluating it, students get the chance to "be" historians and experience what goes into making sound judgments about a certain problem—in this case, how did child slaves live?

Guiding Questions

What experiences defined Jacobs’s and Keckly’s memories of childhood?

Why do we have to be cautious in making generalizations about enslaved childhood based solely on the two primary sources, such as those provided in the Keckly and Jacobs narratives?

Learning Objectives

Identify facts that pertain to Keckly's and Jacobs's lives

Describe how Harriet Jacobs’s and Elizabeth Keckly’s specific experiences compare and contrast to those of enslaved children in general

Explain why incorrect inferences can be made when there are a limited number of sources from which to draw