The order of the day
Was push, the peal of every tongue,
The only word was all the way,
Push along, push along.
(Death of an Old Carriage Horse)
George Moses Horton was born in slavery about 1797 on William Horton's tobacco plantation in Northampton Country, North Carolina. Growing up as a cow-hand in Chatham county, where his master moved, George educated himself to read scripture and to make poems. At 17 years old, he became the property of William's son James and was set to work at a horse-drawn plough. In the 1820s, George spent his time off on weekends in Chapel Hill, on the university campus, selling his poems and fruit, encouraged by the institution's president, Joseph Caldwell, and patronized by Caroline Lee Whiting Hentz, wife of its professor of modern languages. She helped George get some of his poems published in local newspapers. He transmitted his poems orally and needed someone else to write them down. This publicity led both to an failed campaign to raise enough money to free Horton, and to his first book. J. Gales and Son, in Raleigh, published 21 of his poems in a book entitled The Hope of Liberty in 1829. George used income from selling his love poems to students, and from doing handyman's work for the university, to pay his master in lieu of service. George then moved to Chapel Hill. His Poetical Works, published in 1845, lacked the anti-slavery poems of his first book, evidently because of a new politics of repression in the state. Repeated campaigns to free him failed to raise sufficient funds. He seems to have spent the Civil War on the farm of his then master, Hall Horton. Early in April, 1865, George walked to Raleigh to be with the liberating northern army, the 9th Michigan Cavalry Volunteers, where Captain William H. S. Banks took him under his protection. The 90 new poems that George devised for his last volume of poetry, Naked Genius, published by William B. Smith in Raleigh that year, were made in the three months during which George, a man in his sixties, accompanied this army. Afterwards he went north to Philadelphia and is last heard of in 1883. No death notice has been found. He was survived by a son, Free Snipes, and a daughter, Rhody, who remained in North Carolina.
This brief account is based on Joan R. Sherman's excellent scholarly life in The Black Bard of North Carolina: George Moses Horton and His Poetry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997; PS 1999 H473A6), which employs the poet's own autobiography found in his 1845 volume. Sherman also edits over 60 of his poems. In summary, Sherman says that George's
achievements as a man and a poet were extraordinary: Horton was the first American slave to protest his bondage in verse; the first African American to publish a book in the South; the only slave to earn a significant income by selling his poems; the only poet of any race to produce a book of poems before he could write; and the only slave to publish two volumes of poetry while in bondage and another shortly after emancipation.
Given name: George Moses
Family name: Horton
Birth date: 1797?
Death date: ca. 1880