He was a slave who taught himself how to read and write and became by turn a poet. His efforts to gain freedom through his writing failed, but he left an impressive body of work. And now, a newly discovered manuscript sheds light over servitude in scholarly campi.
Around 1817, George Moses Horton, an enslaved young man from Chatham County, North Carolina, began walking to the town of Chapel Hill on weekends to sell his owner’s fruit. Horton, who had taught himself to read but could not yet write, also offered more unusual goods: poems.
He started with acrostic love poems, which he would create for verse-challenged undergraduate swains at the University of North Carolina, at 25 cents a pop and up. He also began publishing more serious poems, like “On Liberty and Slavery,” in newspapers, and in 1829 became the first African American in the South to publish a book.
His efforts to gain freedom through his writing failed. But he was able to buy his time from his owner, and spent the years until the Civil War working on campus as a handyman, servant and something of an unofficial poet in residence, leaving behind three books and dozens of poems.
And now, from the archives, comes a previously unknown essay by Horton, which sheds oblique but suggestive light on his possible role in campus controversies over race, power and free speech that sound strikingly similar to those raging today.
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The essay, a roughly 500-word sermonlike meditation called “Individual Influence,” was found at the New York Public Library by Jonathan Senchyne, an assistant professor of book history at the University of Wisconsin. The document, which will be published in October in PMLA — the journal of the Modern Language Association — appears to be the first prose essay in Horton’s handwriting to come to light, and one of only a handful of manuscripts in his own handwriting known to survive.
Today, while Horton is still far from a household name, he has been celebrated in a growing body of scholarship; in a children’s book; and in Chapel Hill, where the university renamed a dormitory in his honor, as part of continuing efforts to tell a fuller story of its relationship with slavery.
Any new text by Horton, scholars say, is a welcome discovery. “We’re unlikely to find much more from him, given his enslaved status,” said Faith Barrett, an associate professor of English at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, who has written about Horton. “It’s really a wonderful find.”
“Individual Influence” is interesting not just for Horton’s lofty, abstract words about the primacy of divine influence, but for the context in which they were preserved: in a scrapbook of material relating to a prominent scholar who was forced out of the university after publicly opposing slavery.
Horton’s essay says nothing overtly about slavery, or about that case. But “it’s very suggestive about the role he played on campus,” Senchyne said.
Senchyne came across the manuscript in 2015, when he was looking through the papers of Henry Harrisse, a notable 19th-century lawyer and bibliographer who taught at UNC in the mid-1850s.
While paging through a scrapbook Harrisse had made of material from that period, Senchyne was intrigued to find a text in different handwriting, titled “Individual Influence.” And he was startled when he saw the signature at the bottom: “George M Horton, of colour, Born in North Hampton county North Carolina, 60 years old.”
“It was really a surreal moment,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘Wow, what is this?’ ”
Casual readers of the essay may find themselves wondering the same thing. Written in 1855 or 1856, the piece has flowery and convoluted language and archaic spelling, and the sentiments about the relationship between earthly and heavenly power are difficult to untangle.
“All influence opposit to divine perverts human nature into brutality from infancy into distant years,” Horton writes, “while spiritual influence elevates man into an angelic sphere.” (The library has since digitized the document and posted it online.)
Why the essay was written, and how Harrisse acquired it, is unclear. Other documents in the scrapbook suggest it may have had some relationship — whether symbolic, or actual — to complex politics on campus.
First, there are letters and other material relating to problems that Harrisse, a French-Jewish immigrant who arrived in Chapel Hill in 1853, was having with his students, mostly the sons of wealthy planters, who he said threw acorns at the blackboard when he turned his back, and further harassed him by tying up a goat in his classroom and even his bedroom.
“He wanted the administration to discipline them, but they wouldn’t,” Senchyne said.
Harrisse also collected newspaper articles relating to the far more prominent troubles of another professor, Benjamin Hedrick, who caused a furor in 1856 when he publicly announced his support for John C. Frémont, the anti-slavery Republican candidate for president. The ensuing “black Republican” controversy, as it was known, became national news, and many in North Carolina called for Hedrick’s firing, on the grounds that he was poisoning student minds by overtly opposing slavery.
Harrisse, who, like Hedrick, was forced out of the university, “is clearly up to something with the placement of these texts,” Senchyne said.
“Harrisse has too little influence, and can’t control his classroom,” he said. “Hedrick is thought to have too much, and is feared by people in power. And then, in the middle of all that, you have Horton’s essay on individual influence.”
That essay’s skepticism about earthly influence may reflect hard lessons he had learned about the limits of his own. By the time he published his second book of poetry, in 1845, the political climate in North Carolina had tightened, and his verses no longer contained overt protest against slavery.
The university’s president, David Swain, had encouraged his literary efforts, but when Horton gave him a letter to deliver to the abolitionist Horace Greeley in the 1850s, it was buried. Horton also appealed to Swain to buy him, to ease his travels back and forth from campus, to no avail.
Horton gained freedom in the last weeks of the Civil War, when the 9th Michigan Cavalry arrived in Chapel Hill. He went north with the unit, whose commander helped him publish a third book of poetry, “Naked Genius,” in late 1865.
Horton lived for a time in Philadelphia, exploring the ambiguities of freedom in poems like “Forbidden to Ride on the Street Cars,” published in The Christian Recorder in 1866. While a University of North Carolina professor claimed to have seen him in Philadelphia in the 1880s, some scholars believe he may have emigrated to Liberia in the 1860s.
Horton was remembered fondly by UNC alumni. “George has no doubt forgotten me,” one man wrote to his son in 1859. “I should like to see him very much.”
But the white patrons who bought and celebrated Horton’s verse did not always take his desire for freedom seriously. “George never really cared for more liberty than he had, but he was fond of playing to the grandstand,” Collier Cobb, a professor of geology, wrote in the first scholarly essay on his work, published an article in the university’s magazine in 1909.
Senchyne said the new manuscript, for all its opacity, only underlines the way Horton constantly tried to write his way to some semblance of freedom, even when it was legally denied him.
“Here is person who was in the middle of complex daily negotiations over his freedom, his power, his ability to make money,” he said. “That just knocks me back on my heels every time I look at it.”