Jean Fagan Yellin, a historian whose six years of sleuthing revealed that what had been presumed to be a 19th-century white author’s fictional account of a young woman’s life as a slave in the American South was, in fact, a rare autobiography written by a formerly enslaved woman, died on July 19 at her home in Sarasota, Fla. She was 92.
Her death was confirmed by her son, Michael Yellin.
The author’s name was Harriet Jacobs.
“There are only a couple of names that are commonly known of 19th-century women held in slavery — Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman,” Dr. Yellin said during a lecture at Harvard University in 2004, when she published a book about her findings, “Harriet Jacobs: A Life.”
“Both could not write because enslaved people were subject to anti-literacy laws,” Dr. Yellin added. “Their stories, in their own pens, do not exist. Jacobs is it.”
Originally published in 1861, Jacobs’s book, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” vividly recounted her enslavement from her birth in North Carolina in 1813. She was taught to read and write by the benevolent mistress whose family owned her.
“Though we were all slaves, I was so fondly shielded that I never dreamed that I was a piece of merchandise,” Ms. Jacobs wrote.
She recalled that when she was 12, she fell into the hands of a sexually abusive plantation owner who, years later, threatened to sell her children if she rebuffed his advances. Her children had been fathered by another white man who ultimately freed them. She managed to escape, hiding in a three-foot-high crawl space in her free grandmother’s attic, where for seven years she read newspapers and the Bible. In 1842, she fled as a fugitive to New York.
While “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” was promoted as “Written by Herself,” it was written under a pseudonym, Linda Brent, and was widely credited to its editor, Lydia Maria Child, a journalist, abolitionist and advocate for women’s and Native American rights, who may be best remembered for her poem that begins, “Over the river and through the wood.”
Dr. Yellin originally came across “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” while writing her dissertation on 19th-century American literature, and developed a hunch that the book was autobiographical, not fiction.
A letter from Ms. Jacobs found in the archives of Smith College in Northampton, Mass., provided a crucial clue. The letter, which included the line, “I am sitting under the old roof 12 feet from the spot where I suffered all the crushing weight of slavery,” mentioned the names of real people whom Dr. Yellin could match with the characters in “Incidents.”
Dr. Yellin’s biography delves into the accuracy of Ms. Jacobs’s account.
Once Ms. Jacobs reached New York, she worked as a child nurse for the family of the writer Nathaniel Parker Willis. She was still considered a fugitive though, threatened with recapture, until Mr. Willis’s second wife bought her freedom from her owner’s son-in-law in 1852 for $300.
“The freedom I had before the money was paid was dearer to me,” Ms. Jacobs wrote. “God gave me that freedom.”
She was reluctant to write her memoir until Amy Post, an abolitionist from upstate New York, persuaded her.
“If it would help save another from my fate,” Ms. Jacobs wrote to Ms. Post, “it would be selfish and un-Christian of me to keep it back.”
As an abolitionist and crusader for women’s rights, Ms. Jacobs conducted relief missions for slaves who had fled behind Union lines in Virginia. She also ran a boardinghouse near Harvard from 1869 to 1873.
In 1877 she moved to Washington, where she encountered the destitute widow and children of her former owner and abuser. Before Ms. Jacobs died there in 1897, she helped support them.
“Her life in freedom was as extraordinary as her life had been in slavery and as a fugitive,” Dr. Yellin said in the Harvard lecture.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. noted in The New York Times Book Review in 1987 that by the end of the 1860s, only a handful of Black women had published their memoirs.
“The fate of Jacobs’s text — its loss and rediscovery — makes it an emblem of the history of the Black woman’s literary tradition,” he wrote, adding that “few instances of scholarly inquiry have been more important to Afro-American studies than has Ms. Yellin’s.”
Jean Fagan was born on Sept. 19, 1930, in East Lansing, Mich. Her father, Peter Fagan, the son of a Quaker and an Irish Catholic, was a Marxist journalist who, with his wife, Sarah (Robinson) Fagan, the daughter of Orthodox Jews and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan, published a weekly pro-labor newspaper.
Ms. Fagan received a bachelor’s degree from Roosevelt University in 1951 and a master’s and doctorate from the University of Illinois in 1963 and 1969. She began teaching at Pace University in 1968 and was an emeritus professor of English at the time of her death.
She married Edward Yellin, a biomedical engineer, in 1948; he died in 2020. Together, they wrote “In Contempt: Defending Free Speech, Defeating HUAC” (2022), about Mr. Yellin’s refusal to testify in 1958 about his Communist Party membership before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was investigating Soviet subversion.
In addition to her son, she is survived by a daughter, Lisa Yellin Tebo; four grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. Another son, Peter, died years earlier.
Other books she wrote or edited include “Women and Sisters: The Anti-Slavery Feminists in American Culture” (1990) and “The Abolitionist Sisterhood: Anti-Slavery and Women’s Political Culture in Antebellum America” (1994, with John C. Van Horne).
Dr. Yellin’s biography of Ms. Jacobs won the Frederick Douglass Prize and the Modern Language Association’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize. She received a fellowship from the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
She also helped establish the Harriet Jacobs Papers Project, a collection of nearly a thousand documents, more than 300 of which have since been published and are believed to be the only existing papers by a formerly enslaved Black woman.
Sam Roberts, an obituaries reporter, was previously The Times’s urban affairs correspondent and is the host of “The New York Times Close Up,” a weekly news and interview program on CUNY-TV. More about Sam Roberts
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