Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of Louisa Jacobs, 1833-1917

Susan Goodier, History Lecturer
SUNY Oneonta

Louisa Matilda Jacobs was born on October 19, 1833 in Edenton, N.C., the daughter of author and slave, Harriet Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861) and Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, a lawyer, newspaper editor, and Congressional representative. Her father purchased her freedom and sent her north at the age of six to work for some New York relatives. Reunited with her mother two years later, Louisa received tutoring from her mother, some formal schooling at the interracial Young Ladies Domestic Seminary in Clinton, N.Y., and teacher training.

During the Civil War, with the support of the New York Society of Friends and other Societies of Friends, she and her mother taught in freedmen's schools in Alexandria, VA. At war's end, the two went to teach in a school in Savannah, GA, then returned to New York State. Louisa Jacobs traveled on the circuit for the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) with Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Parker Pillsbury, Charles Lenox Remond, and Frances E. W. Harper, all notable abolitionists and women's rights activists. The editors of the Harriet Jacobs Family Papers note that Louisa left the speaking circuit after only two months and "conjecture that she was uncomfortable with the mixed messages the AERA speakers were delivering to audiences," (2:673) sometimes blaming former slave masters, sometimes former slave men for the oppression of black women.

Making homes for themselves in Boston and Washington, D.C., Louisa and her mother engaged in a variety of employment, including running a boardinghouse. While they were living in Washington, D.C., the National Woman Suffrage Association held its eighteenth national convention in that city, February 17-19, 1886. The Sunday evening before the convention, Louisa and Harriet Jacobs visited with Susan B. Anthony in the home of Julia Wilbur, a teacher, activist, and member of the Rochester (N.Y.) Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society. Attending some of the sessions of the convention, the daughter and mother must have found the racist language used at the convention discomforting. Nevertheless, Louisa decided again to work for the suffrage cause and agreed to distribute suffrage publications.

Louisa Jacobs spent her life as her mother's companion and caregiver, taking various jobs, including teaching at Howard University, to help support herself and her mother until her mother's death on March 7, 1897. Louisa went to work at the National Home for the Relief of Destitute Colored Women and Children as a matron, then returned to Howard University in 1903 to serve the institution as a matron. She spent her last years in Brookline, MA, with Edith Willis Grinnell, a member of the family her mother had worked for many years before. Louisa Jacobs died on April 5, 1917.


The most important sources for recovering information about Louisa Jacobs include: Jean Fagan Yellin, Kate Culkin, Scott Korb, eds., Harriet Jacobs Family Papers (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008) and Mary Maillard, Whispers of Cruel Wrongs: The Correspondence of Louisa Jacobs and Her Circle, 1879-1911 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2017). See also Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life, The Remarkable Adventures of the Woman Who Wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Cambridge, Mass.: Basic Civitas Books, 2004); Paula Tarnapol Whitacre, A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur's Struggle for Purpose (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017); Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Jean Fagan Yellin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000); "Universal Suffrage for the Constitutional Convention," New York Tribune, January 25, 1867, 4; "Rev. Mrs. Olympus Brown," Buffalo Commercial, February 22, 1867, 1; "The Advocates of Female Suffrage," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 26, 1867, 2; "Equal Rights," New York Daily Herald, March 27, 1867, 6;; and the Thomas Butler Gunn Diaries, Missouri History Museum Archives, St. Louis. See also the brief sketch of Jacobs in Ann D. Gordon, ed., The Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, vol. 2 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000), pp. 17-18n4.


Image, thought to be of Louisa Matilda Jacobs, in the collection of Jean Fagan Yellin.


Related Writings in Database

View works by

View works about

back to top