Author and illustrator Don Tate will launch the national tour for his new book Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton on Sept. 3 in the Wilson Special Collections Library. The free program is open to the public. (Cookies and lemonade at 5 p.m; talk for adults and children at 5:30 p.m.)
Horton was a slave in Chatham County, North Carolina, who secretly taught himself to read. He went on to compose poems for UNC students and to become the first African American in the South to publish a book — a volume of his poetry titled The Hope of Liberty.
We asked Tate five questions about his research and about his use of the UNC Library, which holds original editions of two of Horton’s three published books.
How did you learn about the story of George Moses Horton?
A writing buddy suggested I write about Horton. Chris Barton, who collaborated with me on The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans, 2015), told me about the slave poet in North Carolina who wrote love poems for college students. He suggested I look Horton up to see if I’d be interested in writing about him. I did, and I was. I began my research that same afternoon.
How did you discover the Horton materials at UNC Library?
Discovering the materials was easy. A quick Internet search of Horton’s name and I struck gold. Horton’s first book, The Hope of Liberty, is on the Library’s Documenting the American South (DocSouth) website. The Poetical Works of George M. Horton, The Colored Bard of North Carolina, to Which is Prefixed the Life of the Author, Written by Himself, is on the site, too. DocSouth is an amazing and valuable collection of primary sources—narratives, art, photographs, more. It became the primary source for writing my book.
Since you were working at a distance, how did you proceed with your research?
At the time that I first wrote and created my initial sketches, I did not have a publisher for the book. Therefore, there was no budget for an in-person research visit. Instead, I found a contact link on the DocSouth website and emailed my questions. I didn’t expect a response, though. I’d already reached out to several other online sources with questions, and received no responses. A writer in North Carolina had once joked with me, saying that as a Texan, I had no business writing about a North Carolinian. I was beginning to wonder if she was joking!
A few weeks later, I received a response from Matt Karkutt of the Wilson Library. He turned out to be just the help I was looking for. Being that I would write and illustrate the book, I needed to know what things looked like in antebellum North Carolina. What did people wear? How did they style their hair? What did the campus and buildings look like? Matt provided me with links to books such as Guion Griffis Johnson’s Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History and William Powell’s The First State University: a Pictorial History. He also pointed me to a very nice online exhibit of campus buildings.
The campus was rural, and so in addition to students roaming around (males only at the time), livestock did too—goats, cattle, chickens. These kinds of details are important to visual storytelling in a picture book. I don’t have to describe a rural scene with words, pictures do the job perfectly. Children love tiny details like that. I continued to communicate with Matt over the next several years.
Did you encounter any surprises?
I was especially fascinated with the topic of literacy within enslaved communities. An enslaved person’s job was to work, not read. Learning to read was discouraged. In fact, reading was for the affluent white upper class. Poor white farmers didn’t value reading for their own children, much less for their slaves. But some slaves learned how to read anyway. I was surprised to learn the lengths to which some enslaved people strove to acquire literacy. Especially when I hear some young people today complain about having to read anything.
There were “pit schools,” ditches dug in the ground and covered with brush, where enslaved people would stow away and teach each other to read. In their master’s absence, some slaves borrowed books and pencils, and secretly took up class in the woods. Some free blacks held clandestine schools in their homes at night. A literate slave was held in high regard in an enslaved community, as they could read about and pass along important news about abolitionist activities to those who could not read. Slave literacy threatened the entire slavery system, which is why it became outlawed. Interesting stuff.
What would you like readers of Poet to take away from the book?
A quote from Frederick Douglass comes to mind: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” It wasn’t my goal to write a book with a message, but Horton’s life speaks to Douglass’s truth. Also from Dr. Seuss: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
- Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton Book Launch Sept. 3 at Wilson Library
- Don Tate website