This guide serves as a portal into Wilson Special Collections Library material related to the life and work of Black poet George Moses Horton. George Moses Horton was born around 1798 in Northampton County, North Carolina. There he was enslaved by white farmer William Horton. While still a child, the Hortons moved George and his family to a farm in Chatham County in the area where Jordan Lake is now.
Horton taught himself to read using primers, the Bible, and hymnals. He negotiated to rent his own time and travel to Chapel Hill, where he spent a significant amount of time and built relationships with the campus and town. He earned money for himself through selling romantic poetry commissioned by UNC students. These poems were acrostics: the first letters of the lines spell out the subject's name. Horton composed poetry in his head and recited the poems while others transcribed them.
Horton learned to write through the support of some UNC faculty, primarily Caroline Lee Hentz (spouse of faculty member Nicholas Marcellus Hentz). She helped Horton publish his first poem, "Liberty and Slavery," in the Lancaster, Mass. Gazette on April 8, 1828. This was the first known poem written by an enslaved person protesting slavery. The Hope of Liberty, a collection of poems published in 1829, was the first publication in the South by an African American person.
Not only did Horton protest slavery and frequently write about freedom, he wrote to abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and formally asked UNC President David Swain to purchase him away from the white Horton family in Chatham as a means to plan for his emancipation. Horton sold poems and saved money from the publication of his books with the intention of purchasing his own emancipation - his enslaver did not accept the money, and Horton remained enslaved until the end of the Civil War. At the close of the war, Horton moved to Philadelphia. Reginald H. Pitts points to records that Horton settled in Liberia in 1866 by the American Colonization Society, and indeed The African Repository lists George Moses Horton, age 68, as a passenger bound from Philadelphia via New York to Grand Bassa County, Liberia. The records are unclear how long he remained in Liberia, but the understanding is that he returned to the United States and passed away in the Philadelphia area around 1883.
In 2007, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill dedicated George Moses Horton Residence Hall, formerly Hinton James North.
While this guide focuses on the rare and unique materials related to George Moses Horton held by Wilson Special Collections Library, in order to provide full context for understanding his life, it also includes some resources at other institutions and secondary sources as well.