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...
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