A Carolina Poet for Juneteenth: George Moses Horton

George Moses Horton: A Biographical Sketch & several poems; from local sources

George Moses Horton

George Moses Horton (1797-1893) could rightly be called North Carolina’s first professional poet.

George Moses Horton,

Born enslaved by  Chatham County yeoman farmer William Horton, young George Moses Horton loved the rhyming sounds of hymns, and yearned to be able to read. As teaching slaves to read was illegal, Horton secretly taught himself, hiding in fields on Sundays. He used an old speller, a copy of the Methodist hymnal, and stray pages from the Bible, although he was grown before he learned to write. Especially fascinated with poetry, he was soon composing psalm-meter verses in his head and committing them to memory.

Young Horton was often sent to Chapel Hill by his then-master, James Horton, to sell produce at the farmer’s market. There his unusually sophisticated vocabulary soon caught the attention of the university students, who encouraged his orations, and ultimately, the recitation of his own verse.

His reputation spread, and by the 1820s, he began to sell poems for students to send to their sweethearts, charging extra for including acrostics in them based on the young ladies’ names.

Thus for several decades he was able to leave farm work behind and purchase his own time from the master James Horton for twenty-five cents a day, and later from James’ son Hall Horton for fifty cents per day.

He and his verses earned the admiration and support of Governor John Owen, University presidents Joseph Caldwell and David L. Swain, and abolitionist newspapermen William Lloyd Garrison and Horace Greeley.

A UNC professor’s wife and novelist, Caroline Lee Hentz, encouraged him and arranged for the publication of a collection, The Hope of Liberty, in 1829. Horton hoped that this small book would sell enough copies for him to purchase his freedom. But it didn’t, though it was the first book published in the South by a black man. Two later collections didn’t bring in much money either, though his poem-making continued.

He finally gained his freedom after the Civil War, and then moved north. Horton spent his final years in Philadelphia, writing Sunday School stories and working for old North Carolina friends who had moved to the city. He did not enjoy the popularity there that he had known in Chapel Hill, and the details of his death are unknown.

He also learned that emancipation faced limitations, even in the old “free states.” A poem below from his Philadelphia years laments the early Jim Crow exclusion of now-free blacks from riding on the city’s street cars.

UNC scholar Collier Cobb described Horton as a “man of letters before he had learned to read…and as an author who supported himself and his family in an intellectual center before authorship had attained the dignity of a profession in America.” Noel Yancey has called him “UNC’s first poet-in-residence.”

His legacy is celebrated by the residents of Chatham County: he is the namesake of Horton Middle School, a historic marker was placed nearby, June 28 was declared George Moses Horton Day in 1978, and in 1997 he was declared the Historic Poet Laureate of Chatham County. Horton’s poetry is featured in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, and in 1996 he was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. As he celebrated freedom,  we celebrate his achievements for this Juneteenth.

Four Poems

On Liberty and Slavery

BY GEORGE MOSES HORTON

Alas! and am I born for this,
To wear this slavish chain?
Deprived of all created bliss,
Through hardship, toil and pain!

How long have I in bondage lain,
And languished to be free!
Alas! and must I still complain‚
Deprived of liberty.

Oh, Heaven! and is there no relief
This side the silent grave‚
To soothe the pain‚ to quell the grief
And anguish of a slave?

Come Liberty, thou cheerful sound,
Roll through my ravished ears!
Come, let my grief in joys be drowned,
And drive away my fears.

Say unto foul oppression, Cease:
Ye tyrants rage no more,
And let the joyful trump of peace,
Now bid the vassal soar.

Soar on the pinions of that dove
Which long has cooed for thee,
And breathed her notes from Africa’s grove,
The sound of Liberty.

Oh, Liberty! thou golden prize,
So often sought by blood‚
We crave thy sacred sun to rise,
The gift of nature’s God!

Bid Slavery hide her haggard face,
And barbarism fly:
I scorn to see the sad disgrace
In which enslaved I lie.

Dear Liberty! upon thy breast,
I languish to respire;
And like the Swan unto her nest,
I’d like to thy smiles retire.

Oh, blest asylum‚ heavenly balm!
Unto thy boughs I flee,
And in thy shades the storm shall calm,
With songs of Liberty!

 

Song of Liberty

The glorious pan of liberation,
Opens now, a scene of joy
Rolls spontaneous through the nation,
Which no treason can destroy;
Lift all voices,
All the world the theme employ.

Swell the paean, sing victorious,
Storms subsided, leave a peace,
Liberation, O! how glorious,
Start in numbers, not cease;
Send the shower down,
and the shower shall increase.

Lift on high ten thousand voices,
Blow the trump of Jubilee;
All the slavish land rejoices,
Sing triumphant all are free;
Sing delightful,
All who live this day to see.

Dart ye angels down from glory,
Let your anthems blend with ours;
Freedom is a joyful story,
Raise in songs celestial showers
As in Eden,
Cluster in elysian bowers.

 

A Philadelphia Poem, after the Civil War:
Forbidden to ride on the Street cars

Why wilt thou from the right revolt?
I wish to ride not far;
Why wilt thou fear the mild revolt
Nor bid the humble horses halt
But spurn me from the car?

And though I wish to travel fleet
Regardless of a jar,
A short mile’s journey to complete,
I dare not ride along the street
Within a rattling car.

What retribution wilt thou meet,
When summoned to the bar?
Wilt thou not from the call retreat?
Leave not the traveler on his feet,
Alone to watch the car.

Like thee, we bravely fought our way,
Before the shafts of war,
Lest thou shouldst fall the rebel’s prey
Why canst thou not a moment stay
And take one on the car?

E’er long, we trust, the time will come,
We’ll ride, however far;
And all ride on together home,
When freedom will be in full bloom,
Regardless of the car!”

 

Reflections from the Flash of A Meteor

So teach me to regard my day,
How small a point my life appears;
One gleam to death the whole betrays,
A momentary flash of years.

One moment smiles, the scene is past,
Life’s gaudy bloom at once we shed,
And thinly beneath affliction’s blast,
Or drop as soon among the dead.

Short is the chain wound up at morn,
Which oft runs down and stops at noon;
Thus in a moment man is born,
And, lo! the creature dies as soon.

Life’s little torch how soon forgot,
Dim burning on its dreary shore;
Just like that star which downwards shot,
It glimmers and is seen no more.

Teach me to draw this transient breath,
With conscious awe my end to prove,
Early to make my peace with death,
As thus in haste from time we move.

heaven, through this murky vale,
Direct me with a burning pen;
Thus shall I on a tuneful gale
Fleet out my threescore years and ten.

 

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