Yesterday the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill renamed one of its new student dormitories after George Moses Horton, a slave from Chatham County. It is thought to be the first building on a Southern college campus to be named for a former slave.
Horton became the first African American to publish a book in the South when a collection of his poems, The Hope of Liberty, was published in 1829. A later collection, The Poetical Works of George M. Horton, The Colored Bard of North Carolina (1845), included a short biographical introduction in which the author described his beginnings as a poet:
Having got in the way of carrying fruit to the college at Chapel Hill on the Sabbath, the collegians who, for their diversion, were fond of pranking with the country servants who resorted there for the same purpose that I did, began also to prank with me. But somehow or other they discovered a spark of genius in me, either by discourse or other means, which excited their curiosity, and they often eagerly insisted on me to spout, as they called it . . . Hence I abandoned my foolish harangues, and began to speak of poetry, which lifted these still higher on the wing of astonishment; all eyes were on me, and all ears were open. Many were at first incredulous; but the experiment of acrostics established it as an incontestable fact. Hence my fame soon circulated like a stream throughout the college. Many of these acrostics I composed at the handle of the plough, and retained them in my head, (being unable to write,) until an opportunity offered, when I dictated, whilst one of the gentlemen would serve as my emanuensis. I have composed love pieces in verse for courtiers from all parts of the state, and acrostics on the names of many of the tip top belles of Virginia, South Carolina and Georgia.
Both of these volumes have been digitized by Documenting the American South.
The renaming of the dormitory is part of a recent resurgence of scholarly and popular interest in Horton. He was inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in 1996, an authoritative biography by Joan R. Sherman was published by UNC Press in 1997, he was featured in the UNC Manuscripts Department’s exhibit “Slavery and the Making of the University,” and the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program has just placed a marker honoring Horton.
Horton did not see this kind of recognition or appreciation during his lifetime. Even after publishing two volumes of poetry he was not freed from slavery until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Horton left North Carolina in 1865, following a Michigan regiment north. He later settled in Philadelphia. It is not known how or when he died.