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The place of George Moses Horton in American letters is well-established. Among the most important black poets in the antebellum era, Horton was the first African American to publish a book in the South. Interest in his work has increased in recent years. Horton was among the fifteen inaugural inductees into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 1996. The following year the George Moses Horton Society for the Study of African American Poetry was founded at the University of North Carolina. His life story, and how he became a published poet while in bondage and unable to write, fascinates to this day.
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Horton was an infant when owner William Horton moved from Northampton County to Chatham County. In 1814 the elder Horton gave George to his son James. By all accounts, and given the fact that he could travel about, George endured a relatively mild bondage. He surreptitiously taught himself to read. He walked on weekends to Chapel Hill where he sold fruit and was prodded into reciting poems for UNC students. Many purchased acrostics for objects of their affection. Some accounts portray him as a subject of their ridicule. Still, he made friends, among them UNC President Joseph Caldwell. Caroline Hentz, a faculty wife, assisted him in transcribing his poems and in 1829 Raleigh printer Joseph Gales published his book, The Hope of Liberty. The “sable orator,” as he signed his works, by 1832 had taught himself to write. Without success he sought help in gaining his freedom. Volumes of his work also appeared in 1845 and 1865 (Naked Genius). In 1866 he moved to Philadelphia, after which little is known of his life. In 1883, the last year of his life, a visitor found him pleased to be called “Poet.”
Owner James Horton died in 1843 and his son Hall inherited the slave poet. Hall Horton’s homestead, according to a plat drawn for his widow Adeline in 1867, stood opposite the “Meeting House lot,” the present site of Mount Gilead Church, four miles north of the Haw River and two miles southeast of US 15/501. Approved in 1999, the placement of the marker was delayed until 2006 awaiting the completion of the highway improvement project in the area.
Richard Walser, The Black Poet (1966)
Joan R. Sherman, ed., The Black Bard of North Carolina: George Moses Horton and His Poetry (1997)
Documenting the American South website dedicated to the works of Horton:
Chatham County Deeds and Wills, North Carolina State Archives
North Carolina State Archives website:
Title page of "The Poetical Works of George M. Horton," 1845.