The New York Times reported that a manuscript on “Individual Influence” by Chapel Hill’s celebrated slave poet George Moses Horton has been discovered in the papers of Henry Harrisse at the New York Public Library. Harrisse, a French Jew of Russian origin, taught at UNC starting in 1853, which would make him the first Jew to teach at the University. How Harrisse acquired the Horton manuscript is not known. Harrisse was driven from the University by unruly students who threw acorns at him and once tied up a goat in his classroom.
From the NYTimes.com article:
Around 1817, George Moses Horton, an enslaved young man from Chatham County, N.C., 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, ultimately 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.