Authors: George Moses Horton

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American slave and poet

Identity: African American

Author Works

Poetry:

Hope of Liberty, 1829

Poetical Works of George M. Horton, 1845

Naked Genius, 1865

The Black Bard of North Carolina: George Moses Horton and His Poetry, 1997 (Joan R. Sherman, editor)

Biography

His birth and death dates are uncertain, and where he died is not known, yet George Moses Horton, the “sable bard” of North Carolina, left a literary legacy. He was the first black professional poet in the United States and one of the first professional writers of any race in the South. Horton was the first African American poet in the South to publish a volume of poems and one of few poets anywhere to publish a volume of poetry before he had learned to write for himself.{$I[AN]9810001866}{$I[A]Horton, George Moses}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Horton, George Moses}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Horton, George Moses}{$I[tim]1797;Horton, George Moses}

George Horton was born a slave on the farm of William Horton in Northampton County, North Carolina; the year is believed to have been 1797 or 1798. While George was young, Master Horton relocated in Chatham County, near Chapel Hill, site of the state’s university.

Horton exhibited an early interest in reading. His mother owned an old Bible and Wesley hymnal, and Horton and his brother managed to match words of familiar hymns and biblical passages with the printed words in those books. Thus they taught themselves to read. Inspired by the Bible and hymnal, George began to compose verses about biblical figures such as Moses and Jesus.

In 1814, James Horton “inherited” George from his still-living father, William. Soon, George began carrying produce to Chapel Hill to sell on weekends. Horton mentioned to some students that he could create poems. The students were amused, but their amusement turned to amazement when the produce peddler started rattling off rhymed verses based on whatever words they would spell for him. Students began offering the slave poet a quarter each for poems. George Moses Horton’s professional career and the legend of “poet Horton” were launched.

Although Horton was becoming a professional writer, he still could not put his own ideas on paper. On weekends, he would receive “commissions” and “instructions” from customers in Chapel Hill; during the week, while tending cows or plowing, he would compose and memorize poems to recite to his customers in town the following weekend.

Many students and faculty members aided the budding bard in developing his poetic gifts. A principal benefactor was Caroline Hentz, wife of a professor and herself a professional author. She ultimately helped Horton get poems published in northern newspapers such as The Liberator and her own hometown paper, The Lancaster Gazette.

In 1828 and 1829, two attempts were made to purchase Horton’s freedom, bringing together diverse persons, including Caroline Hentz; newspaper editor Joseph Gales and his son, Weston Gales; and Carolina-born abolitionist David Walker, then living in Boston. Corporate participants included the North Carolina Manumission Society, North Carolina Colonization Society, Freedom’s Journal (the nation’s first African American newspaper), and the Raleigh Register, edited by the Gales family. Freedom’s Journal and an unnamed “philanthropic gentleman” offered James Horton a hundred dollars above any reasonable price for George’s freedom but was refused. A few months later, the North Carolina Colonization Society joined the Hentz and Gales families in a new project to procure Horton’s freedom. This would involve publication and sale of a volume of his poems. It was hoped that sales of the book plus contributions from sympathizers would raise an amount of money James Horton could not refuse. Furthermore, the Colonization Society stood ready to vouch that Horton would emigrate to Liberia.

The book, Hope of Liberty, published in 1829, did not attain freedom for its author; however, it was in some ways a historic event. An enslaved person had written a book that was published in a slave-holding state, and while teaching slaves to read would not become illegal in North Carolina until 1830, literacy among slaves was always rare. Moreover, its publication established that white citizens of a slave-holding state were willing to contribute to assist Horton out of the “peculiar institution” which state law said was his rightful place. Horton’s Hope of Liberty was the first book of poetry by an African American published in half a century and the first book of any kind by an African American in the South. It contained twenty-one poems, discussing mainly love, death, religion, and slavery.

In 1830, the Hentzes left town. About this time, the North Carolina legislature enacted new restrictions on slaves. One law forbade teaching blacks to read; another required freedmen to leave the state. In the same decade, Horton and his master agreed that George could live in Chapel Hill and “hire his time” by paying twenty-five cents a day to James Horton (later fifty cents a day to James’s brother, Hall Horton). In Chapel Hill, Horton was unofficial writer-in-residence at the college. His poems appeared in campus publications and city newspapers. Some students emulated his style, possibly making him the first African American to found a “school” of American writers.

In 1845, after learning to write, Horton published Poetical Works of George M. Horton. Longer than the earlier volume, it contained no overt antislavery protests. Nevertheless, one of its poems, “Division of an Estate,” may be Horton’s best protest poem because of its subtlety. The poet married a slave of farmer Franklin Snipes. They had two children, with mother and children carrying the surname Snipes. Horton does not mention his wife or children in his writings.

In 1865, freed by Union troops sweeping through Carolina, Horton published Naked Genius, his last and longest poetic volume. Two other volumes, “The Museum” and “The Black Poet,” have been mentioned, but neither is extant. Naked Genius shows the variety of Horton’s writing, including humor not seen in his earlier volumes. After publishing the book, Horton moved to Philadelphia. He may have died in Philadelphia, but the date and place of his death may never be known for certain.

BibliographyAllen, William G. Wheatley, Banneker, and Horton, with Selections from the Poetical Works of Wheatley and Horton. 1849. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970. Contains biographical information on Horton, Phillis Wheatley, and Benjamin Banneker.Brabham, Robin. “To the Tip-Top Belles.” CLA Journal 30 (June, 1987). Examines two poems (acrostics) by Horton.Brawley, Benjamin. Early Negro American Writers. 1935. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1968. A good early study.Cobbs, John. “Horton’s Hope of Liberty.” CLA Journal 24 (June, 1981). Discusses soaring as a unifying metaphor.Farrison, William. “Poet for Freedom.” CLA Journal 14 (March, 1971). Discusses the protest poems.Richmond, M. A. Bid the Vassal Soar: Interpretive Essays on the Life and Poetry of Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784) and George Moses Horton (ca. 1797-1883). Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1974. An excellent study.Walser, Richard. The Black Poet: Being the Remarkable Story (Partly Told by Himself) of George Moses Horton, a North Carolina Slave. New York: Philosophical Library, 1966. A full-length critical biography.
Categories: Authors