By Lapacazo Sandoval

Let’s open with a question — “why is Harriet Jacob important”? She was born in 1813 in Edenton, North Carolina. Sadly, she died on March 7, 1897, in Washington, D.C. Most people know little about this determined robust abolitionist, autobiographer, and dollmaker.

She was born into slavery. Jacobs was taught to read and write at an early age by her first owner, Margaret Horniblow. In most southern states, anyone caught teaching an enslaved person to read would be whipped, fined, or imprisoned. In turn, the slaves often suffered severe punishment for the crime of literacy. From severe beatings to the amputation of fingers and toes, slaves were forbidden to read and write.

Based on the true story of Harriet Ann Jacobs, Letters from a Slave Girl dives into a story about what thousands of African American women had to endure when they were the property of ruthless white slave owners. It might seem like this is a distant part of history; however, the inequity among ethnic groups continues and remains today. When her owner dies, Harriet feels hopeful. A glimmer of hope and the chance to flee to the North becomes a reality for the young woman.

Despite the challenges, one thing that remained for Jacobs was her knack for cor creating dolls. She made beautiful dolls for the children of writer Nathaniel Parker Willis between 1850 and 1860. The extravagant and beautiful marionettes dolls are currently on loan at The New-York Historical Society. They are part of a landmark exhibition that explores Black handmade dolls through the lens of race, gender, and history. On view February 25 – June 5, 2022. The exhibit entwines the seemingly disparate worlds of dolls, racial stereotypes, and racism throughout American history. The exhibition explores how the toys serve as expressions of resilience and creativity, perseverance, and pride. The figures provide a unique view of the history of race in America and reveal some tough truths about the country’s history. 

The exhibit features more than 200 objects, including more than 100 handmade dolls from the private collection of Deborah Neff. For more information, visit nyhistory.org/visit

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