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Horton, George Moses

Horton, George Moses

c. 1797
c. 1883

The poet George Moses Horton was born a slave on a farm in Northampton County, North Carolina. When he was six years old, his master moved to Chatham County, near the University of North Carolina. At an early age, Horton began to compose poems based on biblical themes. Although Horton taught himself to read, he did not learn to write until he was in his thirties. He probably made his initial contact with university students while peddling produce from his master's farm. Soon he was peddling poems he had dictatedacrostics and love poems, written to order. By paying a regular fee to his master for the privilege, he was, eventually, permitted to work as a janitor at the university.

Horton's reading was augmented by university students, who provided him with books, and he received formal writing instruction from Caroline Lee Hentz, the Massachusetts-born wife of a literature professor and novelist, who was instrumental in his initial publication. Horton sought to purchase his freedom; his two antebellum collections were made specifically, though unsuccessfully, toward that end. With the help of southern friends, Hope of Liberty (1829) was published to raise "by subscription, a sum sufficient for his emancipation, upon the condition of his going in the vessel which shall first afterwards sail for Liberia." Poetical Works of George Moses Horton, the Colored Bard of North Carolina (1845) was underwritten by the president, faculty, and students of the University of North Carolina. His last and largest collection, Naked Genius (1865), was published with the assistance of Captain Will Banks, whom Horton met when he fled to the Union army in Raleigh (April 1865).

Horton is regarded as the first professional black poet in America, and it is certainly the case that he wrote for money. His poetry clearly reveals a conscious craftsmanship. The heavy influence of his early exposure to Wesleyan hymnal stanzas and his fondness for Byron are evident, but Horton's work shows variety in stanzaic structure, tone, and theme. Although his contemporary local reputation rested largely on his love poems, he addressed a wide variety of topics, including religion, nature, death, and poetry. Historical events and figures associated with the Civil War appear in the last volume, as do some rather misogynistic poems, which are generally seen as evidence of an unhappy marriage. Horton's dominant tone is sentimental, plaintive, or pious, but his work exhibits irony, satire, humor, bitterness, and anger as well.

In spite of the circumstances of his publication, which discouraged direct abolitionist poems, some of Horton's most effective poems treat the devastating experience of slavery, especially "On Liberty and Slavery," "Slavery," and "The Slave's Complaint."

Little is known about Horton's later years except that after Emancipation he moved to Philadelphia, where some sources report that he wrote short stories for church magazines and where he is thought to have died.

See also Civil War, U.S.; Poetry, U.S.


Sherman, Joan. "George Moses Horton." In Invisible Poets: Afro-Americans of the Nineteenth Century, 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989, pp. 520.

quandra prettyman (1996)

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