George Moses Horton Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 947 words.)


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Although records of the life of George Moses Horton are minimal, the consensus is that he probably was born in 1797 and died in 1883. According to his own account, he was born on a Northampton County, North Carolina, plantation belonging to William Horton, who later moved to more fertile land in Chatham County, near Pittsboro. For several years, George was in charge of the cows. Although William seems to have favored him somewhat, George remained illiterate. Early on, he showed musical talent and facility in rhyme, and he gradually taught himself to read by listening to children’s spelling lessons and by using fragments of spelling books, his mother’s Wesley hymnal, and the Bible.

When George was about seventeen, William’s estate was distributed to his children, and George was separated from his nine siblings, becoming the property of William’s son James. Initially, his job was plowing, but soon George was being sent to Chapel Hill’s weekly farmers market to sell plantation produce. University of North Carolina (UNC) students quickly learned that George could compose acrostic love poems based on their sweethearts’ names, and they paid him twenty-five cents per poem. Some also gave him books of poetry by writers such as Homer, Vergil, William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Lord Byron.

Using money he received from his poems, George “bought” some time from James and spent more time in Chapel Hill, where he met novelist Caroline Lee Hentz, the wife of a UNC professor. Impressed by George’s talent, Hentz tutored him in poetic composition and arranged for some of his poems to be published, primarily in...

(The entire section is 671 words.)