Prince, Lucy Terry (c. 1730–1821)
Prince, Lucy Terry (c. 1730–1821)
African-American poet and orator. Name variations: Lucy Terry. Born about 1730, somewhere in West Africa (real name unknown); died in 1821 in Sunder-land, Vermont; married Abijah or Bijah Prince, on May 16, 1756; children: Caesar (b. 1757); Durexa (b. 1758); Drucella (b. 1760); Festus (b. 1763); Tatnai (b. 1765); Abijah (b. 1769).
Kidnapped, sold into slavery, and brought to Rhode Island as an infant (early 1730s); worked as a household slave in Deerfield, Massachusetts (1735–56); wrote only surviving poem (c. 1746); freed from slavery by her husband, who purchased her freedom (1756); successfully argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court (1797).
Born somewhere in West Africa about 1730, Lucy Terry Prince was kidnapped as an infant and sold into slavery. She was brought by slave ship to Rhode Island in 1735 by Ensign Ebenezer Wells, in whose Deerfield, Massachusetts, home she worked. The Great Awakening, a religious revival sweeping through New England during this period, may have persuaded her mistress to allow the little girl's baptism, which occurred on June 15, 1735. Nine years later, at age 14, Prince joined the church.
How she learned to read and write is unknown. Her only surviving poem, "Bars Fight," was based on an ambush of white settlers by Native Americans that she witnessed in Deerfield in 1746. (Deerfield had also been the site of a famous massacre of settlers in 1704.) The poem was not printed until 1855, when it was included by Josiah Gilbert Holland in his History of Western Massachusetts, but it is widely believed that she wrote it soon after the massacre in 1746, which would clearly predate the first published poem by African-American poet Phillis Wheatley in 1767. Prince was probably around 16 when she wrote "Bars Fight":
August, 'twas the twenty-fifth,
Seventeen hundred forty-six
The Indians did in ambush lay,
Some very valient men to slay,
The names of whom I'll not leave out
Samuel Allen like a hero fout,
And though he was so brace and bold,
His face no more shall we behold….
Oliver Amsden he was slain,
Which caused his friends much grief and pain.
Simeon Amsden they found dead
Not many rods distant from his head….
Eunice Allen see the Indians coming
And hopes to save herself by running;
And had not her petticoats stopped her,
The awful creatures had not catched her,
Nor tommy hawked her on the head
And left her on the ground for dead.
Young Samuel Allen, Oh, lack-a-day,
Was taken and carried to Canada.
On May 16, 1756, Lucy married Abijah Prince, a former slave who some years earlier had gained his freedom and been granted land under the terms of his owner's will. Abijah purchased Lucy's freedom, and the newlyweds moved to Guilford, Vermont, where he owned land. The couple had six children, daughters Durexa (b. 1758), Drucella (b. 1760), and Tatnai (b. 1765), and sons Caesar (b. 1757, who would fight in the Revolutionary War), Festus (b. 1763), and Abijah (b. 1769). All the children were educated in the local schools of Guilford, and the family's home provided a local forum for lively discussions about a variety of subjects, including politics and literature. Prince's first-born daughter Durexa also wrote poetry, although it was done mostly for her own amusement.
A gifted storyteller, Prince was well known for her speaking skills. The "fluency of her speech captivated all around her," according to her 1821 obituary, and she put this ability to good use on a number of occasions to defend her family's rights and property. In 1785, when white neighbors threatened them, Prince and her husband appealed for protection to Vermont's governor and his council, which ordered Guilford's selectmen to defend the Princes. When their oldest son Caesar was refused admission to Williams College in Massachusetts because of his color, Prince argued before the college's board of trustees for a change in the school's admission policy. Although they declined to make the changes she sought, the trustees acknowledged that her powers of persuasion were remarkable; one later said that Prince had cited both scripture and law "in an earnest and eloquent speech of three hours." Some years later, when a dispute arose with another neighbor over property boundaries, the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Non-lawyers were then allowed to argue in that court, and Prince successfully argued her family's case against two of Vermont's leading lawyers. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase later said her argument was superior to those he had heard from either of the Vermont lawyers.
After the death of her husband in 1794, Prince moved to Sunderland, Vermont, where she lived for the rest of her life. Each year, without fail, she traveled across the Green Mountains to visit her husband's grave in Guilford. The only one of her children to predecease her was Durexa, who died in 1812. Prince lived past the age of 90 and died in Sunderland in 1821.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.
Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.
Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania