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‘Mercy Street’ is alive with the spirit of activist Harriet Jacobs

Patina Miller embodies the paradigm-breaking abolitionist in season two of the Civil War hospital drama

PBS’ Mercy Street follows the lives of a group of people tied to a Union hospital in Alexandria, Virginia. There, free and enslaved, Union and Confederate, and contraband black people (runaway enslaved people who followed the Union Army for safety and to avoid recapture) coexist in one community. When PBS announced the details of the second season of its popular Civil War medical drama, I was excited to learn that Mercy Street was adding a character largely based on Harriet Jacobs.

Jacobs’ autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, first published in 1861, is one of the few slave narratives penned by a woman and so extols the horrors of slavery unique to black women. Jacobs surfaces in the second season of Mercy Street through the performance of Tony Award-winning actress Patina Miller. She doesn’t play Jacobs literally. Rather, PBS describes Miller’s character, Charlotte Jenkins, as a composite of several abolitionist women, but confirms that she’s chiefly informed by Jacobs.

Besides intrigues stirred by the addition of a new hospital chief and continued plotting by a Confederate-sympathizing insurgency, season two of Mercy Street offers an expanded look at the conditions typical of contraband camps and freedmen’s outposts in Washington, D.C., and Alexandria. The images of a visibly pregnant black woman, sick with smallpox and lying on the ground clutching a child who is no more than 6 or 7 years old, are heartbreakingly realistic.

Miller’s performance captures Jacobs at her best, as an industrious abolitionist determined to help others now that she’s free herself.

Charlotte Jenkins (Patina Miller)

Charlotte Jenkins (Patina Miller)

Courtesy of PBS

Writing in Life Among the Contrabands, her firsthand account published as a letter to William Lloyd Garrison, founder of the anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator, in September 1962, Jacobs described the miserable conditions of some of the camps, a last way station en route to freedom.

Another place, the old school-house in Alexandria, is the Government head-quarters for the women. This I thought the most wretched of all the places. Any one who can find an apology for slavery should visit this place, and learn its curse. Here you see them from infancy up to a hundred years old. What but the love of freedom could bring these old people hither? One old man, who told me he was a hundred, said he had come to be free with his children. The journey proved too much for him. Each visit, I found him sitting in the same spot, under a shady tree, suffering from rheumatism. Unpacking a barrel, I found a large coat, which I thought would be so nice for the old man, that I carried it to him. I found him sitting in the same spot, with his head on his bosom. I stooped down to speak to him. Raising his head, I found him dying. I called his wife. The old woman, who seems in her second childhood, looked on as quietly as though we were placing him for a night’s rest.

Miller’s performance captures Jacobs at her best, as an industrious abolitionist determined to help others now that she’s free herself. It’s an empowered portrayal. Jenkins arrives as a representative of a northeastern freedman’s bureau, with intentions to “educate, support, fortify” the contrabands, as she tells Dr. Foster (Josh Radnor) and Nurse Phinney (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Jenkins is the most educated and self-assured black character on the show. She’s willing to challenge Foster and Phinney, seemingly ignorant of the smallpox outbreak that’s budding outside their hospital, about why they haven’t done anything about it. It’s because those affected are all black and invisible even to Foster and Phinney, who consider themselves to be progressives and loyalists to the Union cause.

The confidence with which Jenkins carries herself, as a well-dressed woman with serious backbone, is significant and a fitting tribute to the woman Jacobs grew to be. But I think it’s important to note the ways traces of Jacobs’ work could be found in Mercy Street even before Miller brought her to life. I highly recommend revisiting Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl as companion reading for Mercy Street. Many may remember the Mary E. Lyons’ novel, Letters From a Slave Girl: The Story of Harriet Jacobs as part of required reading for high school English or history class. However, after reading Jacobs’ unabridged account of her life, I found myself rewatching the first season and paying special attention to Aurelia Johnson (Shalita Grant).

Thanks to Aurelia’s first-season trials, Mercy Street viewers, are, in a sense, treated to two visions of Jacobs’ life.

Thanks to Aurelia’s first-season trials, Mercy Street viewers, are, in a sense, treated to two visions of Jacobs’ life. Her spirit and observations are present in both Aurelia and in Charlotte Jenkins. Aurelia’s experiences with rape and a nearly fatal abortion are reflective of the conditions Jacobs wrote about in Incidents, and which law professor Dorothy Roberts discusses in Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty.

In season one, Aurelia is constantly trying to avoid the uninvited advances of hospital steward Silas Bullen (Wade Williams). The way Bullen ceaselessly pursues Aurelia is stomach-churning, but it’s similar to what Jacobs revealed about her own experiences living in North Carolina with her owner’s father. In Incidents, which she penned under the pseudonym Linda, she refers to him as Dr. Flint (In real life, the man’s name was Dr. James R. Norcom).

As soon as Jacobs entered adolescence, Norcom contrived one scheme after another to be alone with Jacobs. He whispered his desires to her, and because she could read, he would write her notes expressing the same. She finally, at age 15, entered a less coercive relationship and had a child with another white man, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, in the hope of escaping the threat of rape from Norcom, plus the fury of his cruel and jealous wife.

“It seems less degrading to give one’s self, than to submit to compulsion,” Jacobs wrote. “There is something akin to freedom in having a lover who has no control over you, except that which he gains by kindness and attachment. A master may treat you as rudely as he pleases, and you dare not speak; moreover, the wrong does not seem so great with an unmarried man, as with one who has a wife to be made unhappy.”

Aurelia, finally unable to escape Bullen’s grasp, becomes saddled with an unwanted pregnancy and tries to abort, first with a tea made of pennyroyal that Belinda (L. Scott Caldwell) tells her about. When that doesn’t work, she nearly kills herself attempting an abortion by poking her uterus with a sharp instrument.

There’s a great deal of bravery in Jacobs’ decision to share the candid account of her experiences as an enslaved girl in Edenton, North Carolina, as opposed to being silenced by shame. Because it’s so detailed and because Jacobs so expertly illustrates how slavery corrupted everything it touched, Jacobs became something of an everywoman by revealing the constant threat of rape that trailed her from the time she entered adolescence.

That was a deliberate decision on her part — had she wanted to, Jacobs could have merely recounted her story to Harriet Beecher Stowe, who offered to include it in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Instead, she chose to write it herself. For Jacobs, that meant revealing a painful conflict between herself and her grandmother. One of the horrible ways slavery twisted morality and blamed black women for their circumstances was by perpetuating standards of what a good and virtuous woman was — standards that black women, by the very nature of their condition, would never be able to meet — and punishing them when they fell short.

Even as the laws of the time allowed slaveholders to rape black women without consequence, black women, like Jacobs’ grandmother, still internalized ideas about a woman’s virtue being tied to her sexual activity. Jacobs wrote about the heartbreak of her grandmother’s disappointment in her when she became pregnant. At the time, her grandmother, who was well aware of Norcom’s persistent lechery, thought the child was his. Wrote Jacobs:

She exclaimed, ‘O Linda! It has come to this? I had rather see you dead than to see you as you now are. You are a disgrace to your dead mother.’ She tore from my fingers my mother’s wedding ring and silver thimble. ‘Go away!’ she exclaimed, ‘and never come to my house, again.’

Miller’s decision to portray Charlotte Jenkins as a confident and assertive woman underscores just what a fount of inspiration Jacobs likely was to other free and contraband black people who shared her experiences. Indeed, Charlotte is an inspiration even to free blacks, as Mercy Street viewers will see this season in her interactions with Samuel Diggs (McKinley Belcher III).

That’s meaningful on its own, but even more so when you consider the earlier years of Charlotte’s life, which probably contained traumatizing experiences not unlike the ones Aurelia endured in season one.

Mercy Street airs Sundays on PBS at 8 p.m EST.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.