Sunday, November 25, 2018

The First Black Professional 
Writer in America

George Moses Horton

            George Moses Horton was born in what is now the Rich Square Township of Northampton County, NC, the property of William Horton, Sr., who owned his mother and all her children. As a rule slaves did not know their ages, but it is generally agreed that George Moses Horton was born about 1797 and used the last name of his owner, William Horton.
            The Horton family moved to Chatham County, NC when George Moses was about six years old. Horton taught himself to read using the Bible, a spelling book and a hymnal. The  hymns became examples from which he composed his earliest poems. 

NC Historical Marker in Pittsboro

            In 1814, William Horton gave George Moses to a relative. When his owner died, the Horton family was separated and years later, he wrote a poem about this traumatic experience. The title was “Division of an Estate.”
            When he was about 19 or 20, George Moses began making regular visits to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where he sold fruit for his owner at the farmers’ market. He would compose poems in his head, say them out loud and sell them to university students. A student would tell him the name of his sweetheart and George Moses would compose an acrostic* on that name and pay Horton a small amount for the poem. These transactions led to Horton being known as the first Negro professional man of letters in the country and one of the earliest southern writers. For the rest of George Moses’ life, he was largely supported by his writing.
            It soon became evident that he had unusual talent and many, including James K. Polk, who later became President, encouraged him. They began giving him books and Mrs. Caroline Hentz, wife of a faculty member and an author herself, transcribed his poetry and helped him get his work published in her hometown paper, the Lancaster Gazette in Massachusetts. Horton’s first published poem was "Liberty and Slavery” which appeared on April 8, 1829.

            Friends backed Horton’s first book, The Hope of Liberty, in 1827. This made him the first African American man to publish a book in the South. He had hoped to buy his freedom with the profits from the book, but his master thought he was too valuable, and he remained a slave.
            In the early 1830s, his works were appearing in the Raleigh Register. By the time he learned to write in 1832, he had a weekly income of about $3 a week. He arranged to pay his master 25¢ a day to remain in Chapel Hill to carry on his writing and work as a handyman and servant at UNC. This arrangement continued for over 30 years until he was freed in 1865.
            Governor Swain, along with other sponsors, made possible his second book, Poetical Works (1845). His third, largest, and last book, Naked Genius, (1865) was sponsored by Union soldiers.
            After the war, Horton settled in Philadelphia where he continued to write until he died in 1883. Some of his best poems are protests against slavery. He also wrote a poem, "Forbidden to Ride on the Street Cars," that recognized that the end of slavery did not truly mean freedom.

*The first letter of each line of the poem was the corresponding letter in the girl’s name.

  1. Documenting the American South; George Moses Horton, 1798?-ca.1880,
  2. Poetry Foundation: George Moses Horton,
  3. Wikipedia: “George Moses Horton,”
  4. North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame: “George Moses Horton,”
  5. Footprints in Northampton: Northampton Bicentennial Committee, 1976.

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