“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Such was, in theory, the America Louisa “Lulu” Matilda Jacobs was born into. For a black, female slave in 1833, however, the reality was quite different.  African Americans were fighting for their freedom, women for their right to read.  To be a learned black woman at that time was practically unheard of.

lulu jacobs, abolition, education, women's rights, emancipation, racial discrimination

Louisa Lulu Jacobs (Source: Wikipedia)

In the nineteenth century, education was still considered a privilege for most Americans; it was predominantly reserved for the free, wealthy, white, and male. Parents who could invest in educating their sons rather than daughters, for they needed knowledge to launch profitable careers and establish themselves in society.

Girls were, sometimes, given kindergarten level schooling, but were generally trained for domestic roles and the performance of household duties.

Lulu’s mother did not play by those rules, though. Harriet Jacobs was a slave, but also a writer and civic activist who called for abolition and education. As the mistress of a white congressman and newspaper editor, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, she was able to secure his support for Lulu to attend school.

Sawyer brought six-year-old Lulu to New York, where she lived with his cousin’s family and attended private school. Later, when she and her mother moved to Boston, he provided for her teacher training.

It was in Boston that Lulu came to grasp the full power of education. She mixed and listened to abolitionists, thinkers, feminists, civil rights activists. They and her mother, who had become a famed author, showed her the value of knowledge. It was the key to understanding, and by understanding, to freedom. Lulu realized how lucky she was; to have had the opportunity to learn to read, write, and think. Others deserved that chance too, she decided. From that time on, Lulu would teach.

With her mother, she founded a school in Virginia, in 1863, for African American children who had been freed from slavery. Three years later, she opened another school similar to it in Georgia.  To support herself and her mother, she later also ran a boarding house and started her own jam and preserves business. She thrived as an entrepreneur.  At the peak of her life and career, she was the only female instructor at Howard University, where she taught home economics and served as Matron.

Lulu, like her mother, would face white injustice and poverty until she died. As a black, educated, single woman, she would have to fight every day for the Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness all Americans had been promised.

She would not live to see, a century later, schools desegregated, integrated. White and African American children taking notes on the same benches.

She would never know that she blazed the trail on which so many would follow.   She did what she could and for all those she could, and kept faith at all times:

“Let us be hopeful and never turn aside from the little glimmers of sunshine that meet us here and there on our way.”

Louisa “Lulu” Jacobs

lulu jacobs, abolition, education, women's rights, emancipation, racial discrimination

Lulu’s mother, Harriet (Source: Wikipedia)

Yara Zgheib

Yara Zgheib

Yara is a writer, policy researcher and analyst, and lover of culture, travel, nature, art. She is the author of The Girls at 17 Swann Street and blogger behind Aristotle at Afternoon Tea. She has written for The Huffington Post, The Four Seasons Magazine, The Idea List, A Woman’s Paris, and Holiday Magazine.

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