The Black Bard of North Carolina
George Moses Horton and His Poetry

Edited by Joan R. Sherman

Excerpts from Joan Sherman's Introduction

From the Introduction to The Black Bard of North Carolina: George Moses Horton and His Poetry, edited by Joan Sherman. Copyright 1997, The University of North Carolina Press. Reproduction in any form is prohibited without the express permission of the Press. For additional information about this book, see the links below.


George Moses Horton was a slave for sixty-eight years, from his birth in about 1797 until the close of the Civil War. His achievements as a man and a poet were extraordinary: Horton was the first American slave to protest his bondage in verse; the first African American to publish a book in the South; the only slave to earn a significant income by selling his poems; the only poet of any race to produce a book of poems before he could write; and the only slave to publish two volumes of poetry while in bondage and another shortly after emancipation. Horton also stands out among African American poets of the nineteenth century for his wide range of poetical subjects and unorthodox attitudes. His religious verse is undogmatic and humanistic; his antislavery poems are honest and deeply personal, unlike the generic protests by free black poets; he treats everyday matters like drinking and poverty, women, love, and marriage with wry and cynical humor in an often self-satirical mood; and his view of America and its heroes is patriotic, integrationist, and culturally nationalistic. . . .

At a time when the life expectancy for a white male was about thirty-five years and much less for a slave, George Horton survived to the age of eighty-six. Unfortunately, the only sources of concrete information about his long life as a slave and free man are his autobiographical sketch in The Poetical Works (1845), a few of his letters, one long oration, and brief reminiscences by men who actually met him.

Horton was born in Northampton County, four miles from the Roanoke River on the small tobacco farm of his master, William Horton. . . . A few years after George's birth, his master decided to move from Northampton County because of "the sterility of his l and" to Chatham County, some 100 miles southwest, where he purchased land in 1800. . . . On this prosperous farm, George was a "cow-boy" for ten years, an occupation he found "disagreeable." His life's pleasures, he writes, were "singing lively tunes" and "hearing people read," and with his brother, "both remarkable for boys of color and hard raising," George resolved to learn to read. He learned the alphabet from "old parts" of tattered spelling books and studied the words outdoors every Sabbath and indoors at night by "incompetent bark of brush light, almost exhausted by the heat of the fire, and almost suffocated with smoke." His "scheme" to learn spelling and reading was "repeatedly threatened" by local "play boys" who taunted him for his foolish studying and by his master who cared little for his own children's schooling and "less for the improvement of the mind of his servants." But, Horton says, he persevered "with an indefatigable resolution" and "with defiance." The obstacles he had to overcome, Horton concludes, "had an auspicious tendency to waft me, as on pacific gales, above the storms of envy and the calumniating scourge of emulation, from which literary imagination often sinks beneath its dignity, and instruction languishes at the shrine of vanity." Horton developed this extraordinary vocabulary by reading "parts of the New Testament," his mother's Wesley hymnal, "other pieces of poetry from various authors," and, later on, many books. To these texts he added the tunes and rhythms of religious music that he heard at Sabbath preachings and camp meetings, and he soon "composed several undigested pieces" on religious themes in his head, such as "Excited from Reading the Obedience of Nature to Her Lord in the Vessel on the Sea." . . . .

William Horton died in 1819, and a few years later, when his estate was distributed among the family, [his son] James bought three of his father's twelve slaves, Judy, Lucy, and Ben. George Horton evokes the memory of this event in his poems "Division of an Estate," "A Slave's Reflection on the Eve Before His Sale," and "Farewell to Frances."

Aside from his dislike of manual labor and his sadness over the breaking up and dispersal of the estate's slaves Horton revealed few details about his slavery years in his writings. But it seems certain that his bondage was relatively mild, since he enjoyed much freedom of movement beginning in about 1817. Horton used Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday, the slave's traditional time off, to walk eight miles to Chapel Hill, where he sold fruit and his poems. Beginning in the 1830s, the poet hired his time and lived in Chapel Hill, away from his master's farm. Horton no doubt benefited from the attitudes and laws of North Carolina, which in the first three decades of the century were markedly more liberal toward slaves than those of other southern states. . . .

By 1820, Horton's routine of weekly Sabbath walks to Chapel Hill was well established, and he had launched a career as a professional poet on the campus of the state university. . . . In his account of his life up to 1830, Horton revealed the experiences on campus that greatly mattered to him. On one hand, he disapproved of the collegians' pranks, their putting the slave on display, and their drinking; on the other hand, he celebrated his verse-making and reading, his manumission campaign, and publication of his Hope of Liberty in 1829. The sketchy facts about campus life that Horton's autobiography supplies are supported by historians' accounts of the university during these early decades and afterward.

Chapel Hill students, the sons of wealthy planters, seemed more interested in sports, gambling, and pleasures of the table than in their studies. . . . The collegians, Horton wrote, "for their diversion were fond of pranking with the country servants," and they "pranked" with him by insisting that he "spout"; they made him "stand forth and address" the collegians extemporaneously, "as an orator of inspired promptitude." Public speaking and debate were strongly encouraged at the university: all seniors delivered orations in May, men awarded honors gave commencement speeches, and all students were required to join one of the "oratory" societies, the Dialectic or the Philosophic. Since "the oration was the highest type of literary effort developed in the ante-bellum South," it was fitting that students transformed Horton into an orator. At first, the slave felt proud of his performance, he wrote; "but I soon found it an object of aversion, and considered myself nothing but a public ignoramus." Consequently Horton abandoned these "foolish harangues and began to speak of poetry." On two known later occasions, however, he again "spouted" to order for the collegians, and in his "Address" he called himself "your sable orator" and "your poor orator." . . . .

When Horton ceased orating on command for the students, he began "the experiment of acrostics" and became part-time poet-in-residence at Chapel Hill. During the week, "at the handle of the plow" he composed poems to order in his head--he could not write until about 1832--and dictated them to student buyers on the next Sabbath. Horton recalled selling "love pieces in verse . . . and acrostics on the names of many of the tip-top belles of Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia" for the princely sums of twenty-five to seventy-five cents each, "besides many decent and respectable suits of clothes." . . . Horton's clients also supplied their poet with books; he names twenty-two donors of books in his memoir. Among the books Horton lists were "Murray's English Grammar . . . Johnson's Dictionary" and other dictionaries, "Milton's Paradise Lost, Thomson's Seasons, parts of Homer's Iliad and Vergil's Aeneid, Beauties of Shakespeare, Beauties of Byron, part of Plutarch, Morse's Geography, the Columbian Orator, Snowden's History of the Revolution, [and] Young's Night Thoughts." From this library Horton culled poetic forms and subjects and a vocabulary laden with mythological, literary, and historical allusions. . . . .

Poet Horton benefited from the relative open-mindedness at the university, the support of president Joseph Caldwell, for whom he worked, and his popularity with the students. He was earning three to four dollars a week from sales of his love poems, an extraordinary sum at a time when a student's monthly allowance was $1.00 and his weekly board $2.50; fresh meat sold for 4 or 5 cents a pound and eggs for 8 to 10 cents a dozen; and an acre of university land cost $100). Horton's lucrative trade in verse as well as his dislike of farm labor led him to hire his time from James Horton in about 1833. Although it was prohibited by law, his master sold Horton his time for twenty-five cents a week, leaving the poet with a substantial profit.

On April 17, 1865, General Smith B. Atkins led the 9th Michigan Cavalry Volunteers into Chapel Hill, which they occupied until May 3. There are two versions of George Horton's movements in the spring of 1865, both of them bringing Horton under the patronage of Captain William H. S. Banks of the 9th Michigan Cavalry Volunteers. . . . In any case, testimony of Banks and evidence from Horton's poems confirm that the twenty-eight-year-old captain and the sixty-eight-year-old poet traveled together as Banks's regiment moved west out of Chapel Hill in May to Greensboro and Lexington. . . . In June they traveled to Concord. Banks and Horton then backtracked to Lexington, where on July 21 the 9th Cavalry was released from service; afterward they traveled east to Raleigh. In Raleigh, William B. Smith published Naked Genius by George Moses Horton, The Colored Bard of North Carolina. For Horton the three-month physical journey alone was an amazing feat: a man nearing seventy had walked almost 300 miles and had lived precariously in army camps in the heat of May, June, and July. Undoubtedly, his mental and emotional journeys were as arduous, for as he walked and camped, Horton composed ninety new poems for Naked Genius. Banks reported that he worked "both night and day composing poems for his book" and that he also wrote "acrostics for the boys on their sweethearts' names, in which he takes great delight." The "unfettered" slave surely enjoyed his freedom to versify, but many poems in Naked Genius suggest how difficult Horton found these months on the road among strangers. After a lifetime in bondage, for him a restrictive but protective environment, Horton missed the familiar small world of the Chatham farm and the eight miles of countryside to Chapel Hill. Many poems in Naked Genius, like "The Southern Refugee," express longing for home, family, and friends in the voice of the poet himself, or voices of soldiers displaced by war; the word "home" appears in the titles of seven poems.

Naked Genius was the last documented product of Horton's pen. . . . It is presumed that Horton traveled north from Raleigh to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sometime in 1866. Where and how Horton lived in the following eighteen years and where he died are unknown. . . . Collier Cobb, a native North Carolinian and geology professor at Chapel Hill, wrote in 1929 that he had "called on Poet Horton in Philadelphia in 1883, the very year in which he died." Horton, Cobb reported, was then "publishing short stories in a number of newspapers" and occasionally had been employed by three members of the Cobb family in Philadelphia. . . . Regrettable, too, is Cobb's failure to disclose where, or exactly when, or how Horton died, although it seems that he knew these details. The Death Records of Philadelphia (1878-84), which Walser consulted, do not record Horton's death. Overall, then, we know only that after 1866 poet Horton lived in Philadelphia at times and that he was still alive in 1883 at the age of eighty-six. The rest is silence.

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