George Moses Horton (1798–1884) was an African-American poet and the first African American poet to be published in the Southern United States. His book was published in 1828 while he was still enslaved; he remained enslaved until he was emancipated late in the Civil War.
Horton was born into slavery on William Horton's plantation in Northampton County, North Carolina.〔Johnson, Lonnell E. "George Moses Horton" in ''African American Authors, 1745-1945: Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook'' (Emmanuel S. Nelson, editor). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000: 239. ISBN 0-313-30910-8〕 He was the sixth of ten children, though the names of his parents are lost to history.〔Page, Amanda. "George Moses Horton" in ''The North Carolina Roots of African American Literature: An Anthology '' (William L. Andrews, editor). The University of North Carolina Press, 2006: 45. ISBN 0-8078-2994-3〕 As a very young child in 1800, he and several family members were moved to a tobacco farm in rural Chatham County, when his owner relocated. He was given as property to William's relative James Horton in 1814.〔 In 1819, the estate was broken up, and George Moses Horton's family was separated (the poem "Division of an Estate" reflected on the experience years later).〔
Horton disliked farm work and in his free time he taught himself to read using spelling books, the Bible, and hymnals.〔 Learning poetry and snippets of literature, Horton composed poems in his mind. As a young adult, Horton delivered produce to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he composed and recited poems for students, some of whom transcribed his compositions. Horton also composed poems, usually love poems, by commission for the students at 25 or 50 cents each.〔 Considering the difficulty of earning income from poetry, Horton was likely one of the few professional poets in the South at the time.〔O'Brien, Michael. ''Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860''. The University of North Carolina Press, 2010: 181. ISBN 978-0-8078-3400-8〕
In 1829, his poems were published in a collection titled ''The Hope of Liberty'', which was intended to raise funds for his release from slavery. The book, funded by the politically-liberal journalist Joseph Gales, appeared the same year as David Walker's ''An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World''.〔Gordon, Dexter B. ''Black Identity: Rhetoric, Ideology, and Nineteenth-Century Black Nationalism''. Southern Illinois University, 2003: 2009. ISBN 0-8093-2485-7〕 Horton is believed to be the first Southern black to publish poetry.〔 Though he knew how to read, he published the book before he learned how to write. As he recalled, "I fell to work in my head, and composed several undigested pieces."〔Hager, Christopher. ''Word by Word: Emancipation and the Act of Writing''. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013: 69. ISBN 978-0-674-05986-3〕
By 1832, he had learned to write for himself, having learned with the aid of Caroline Lee Hentz, who was the wife of a professor and a writer herself. She also assisted in publishing at least two of his poems in a newspaper.〔 Horton had composed a poem on the death of Hentz's child. As he recalled: "She was extremely pleased with the dirge which I wrote on the death of her much lamented primogenial infant, and for which she gave me much credit and a handsome reward. Not being able to write myself, I dictated while she wrote."〔 She sent one of Horton's poems to her hometown newspaper in Lancaster, Massachusetts, where it was published on April 8, 1828, as "Liberty and Slavery".〔
Horton's first book was republished under the title ''Poems by a Slave'' in 1837 and compiled with a biography and poetry by Phillis Wheatley a year later in a book called ''Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and Slave: Also Poems by a Slave''.〔Johnson, Lonnell E. "George Moses Horton" in ''African American Authors, 1745-1945: Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook'' (Emmanuel S. Nelson, editor). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000: 240. ISBN 0-313-30910-8〕 The book was published by Boston-based publisher and abolitionist Isaac Knapp, and it is believed to be the first complete collection of Wheatley's poems in book form.〔Cavitch, Max. ''American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitman''. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007: 193. ISBN 978-0-8166-4892-4〕 In 1845, Horton released another book of poetry, ''The Poetical Works of George M. Horton, The Colored Bard of North-Carolina, To Which Is Prefixed The Life of the Author, Written by Himself''. The moniker, "Colored Bard of North-Carolina", was coined by his new publisher.
Horton gained the admiration of North Carolina Governor John Owen, influential newspapermen Horace Greeley and William Lloyd Garrison, along with numerous Northern abolitionists.
Sometime in the 1830s, Horton married an enslaved woman owned by Franklin Snipes in Chatham County. The couple had two children, Free and Rhody, though little else is known about the family.〔Page, Amanda. "George Moses Horton" in ''The North Carolina Roots of African American Literature: An Anthology '' (William L. Andrews, editor). The University of North Carolina Press, 2006: 46. ISBN 0-8078-2994-3〕
Horton had written about his interest in the new nation of Liberia, and a few of the abolitionist papers made calls to raise enough money so that Horton could see his dream of life in Liberia come true. He was not emancipated until 1865, however, when he met the Ninth Calvary from Michigan. A young officer with that group, William H. S. Banks, collaborated with Horton on the collection ''Naked Genius'' the same year.〔 At the age of 68, Horton moved to Pennsylvania as a freeman where he continued to write poetry for local newspapers. One such publication, "Forbidden to Ride on the Street Cars", shows his disappointment in the unjust treatment of blacks even after emancipation.〔 In Philadelphia, he wrote Sunday school stories on behalf of friends who lived in the city. His exact death location and date are unknown.〔 At least one researcher suggests Horton moved to Liberia at some point.〔
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