Slave Poet's Lost Essay On 'Individual Influence' Resonates Through Centuries

Sep 30, 2017
Originally published on October 2, 2017 10:24 am

George Moses Horton published a book of poetry in 1829, when he was still a slave in North Carolina. He went on to write several volumes, which never earned enough money to buy his freedom — though he became a frequent presence on campus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he wrote love poetry on commission for students. Horton was finally set free by the Union Army in 1865, moved to Philadelphia and continued to write until he died.

Jonathan Senchyne, a professor of history at the Information School of the University of Wisconsin, recently discovered an essay by Horton that shows another side of his intelligence — his political insights. "I was in the reading room at the New York Public Library at 42nd and 5th," Senchyne says, looking into the papers of 19th century bibliographer Henry Harrisse, "and as I was looking through his papers, getting used to reading his handwriting, I saw completely different handwriting ... I did not expect that they knew each other, or that Horton's work would have been known to Harrisse, but there it was."

Senchyne had found a two-page essay, titled "Individual Influence," with Horton's bold signature at the bottom.


Interview Highlights

On the essay's resonance today

The essay is contained in a scrapbook, and the rest of the material in the scrapbook has to do with the political controversy on the campus of Chapel Hill in 1856. There was a professor, Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick, who supported an anti-slavery candidate for president, John C. Fremont. Months after this essay was written, [Hedrick] was fired from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill for holding his anti-slavery views, and one of the things that interests me is that the material that "Individual Influence" is preserved with focuses on the literal question of influence — did Hedrick have too much, or proper forms of influence over his students in matters of politics? Could a public university professor hold views that were unpopular in the state and even problematic for the economy of the state? And right now there are a number of debates about speech and influence on campuses around the United States, especially public university campuses.

On Horton's connection to the controversy

While Horton certainly wouldn't have thought in terms of academic or intellectual freedom, that is something that I think was present to his mind — the nature of his own freedom as a person, to move about, to have security in his body, but also to think and to speak. And it really intrigues me that he may have been in the circle of people involved ... and their own ideas about slavery and influence and intellectual and personal freedom may have derived from their relationship with Horton.

This story was edited for radio by Barrie Hardymon and Sophia Boyd, and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

George Moses Horton published a book of poetry in 1829, when he was still a slave in North Carolina. He went on to write several volumes, which never earned enough money for him to buy his freedom. He was finally set free by the Union Army in 1865, moved to Philadelphia and continued to write until he died, the date of which is not known.

Jonathan Senchyne, a professor of history and information at the University of Wisconsin, recently discovered an essay by George Moses Horton that shows another side of his intelligence, his political insights. Dr. Senchyne joins us from New York.

Thanks so much for being with us.

JONATHAN SENCHYNE: Thanks for having me on.

SIMON: Where'd you find the essay?

SENCHYNE: I was in the reading room at the New York Public Library on 42nd and 5th. I was looking into the papers of Henry Harrisse, who went on to become a bibliographer in the 19th century. It turned out that he had been in Chapel Hill in the 1850s. And as I was looking through his papers, getting used to reading his handwriting, I saw a completely different handwriting. And though I had known George Moses Horton was also in Chapel Hill at that time, I did not expect that they knew each other or that Horton's work would have been known to Harrisse. But there it was, two-page essay entitled "Individual Influence," and with his very bold signature at the bottom, George Moses Horton, of color, 60 years old, belonging to Hall Horton.

SIMON: How does this essay resonate today?

SENCHYNE: Well, one thing that we didn't talk about yet is the essay is contained in a scrapbook. And the rest of the material in the scrapbook has to do with a political controversy on the campus of Chapel Hill in 1856. And there was a professor, a Benjamin Sherwood Hedrick, who supported an antislavery candidate for president, John C. Fremont. Months after I think this essay was written, Hedrick was fired from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill for holding his antislavery views.

And one of the things that interests me is that the material that "Individual Influence" is preserved with focuses on the literal question of influence. Did Hedrick have too much or proper forms of influence over his students in matters of politics? Could a public university professor hold political views that were unpopular in the state and even problematic for the economy of the state? And right now, there are a number of debates over speech and influence on campuses around the United States, especially public university campuses.

And while Horton certainly wouldn't have thought in terms of academic or intellectual freedom, that is something that I think was present to his mind - the nature of his own freedom as a person to move about, to have security in his body but also to think and to speak. And it really intrigues me that he may have been in the circle of people involved in this controversy in 1856 at Chapel Hill. And their own ideas about slavery and influence and intellectual and personal freedom may have derived from their relationship with Horton.

SIMON: And I'm embarrassed to tell you - well, I would imagine a lot of people are just hearing about him now.

SENCHYNE: Yeah. You know, George Moses Horton was long known and remembered in North Carolina in black communities. And there is a middle school in Chatham County, N.C., named George Moses Horton Middle School. They have a George Moses Horton Day every February, where they think about their namesake and honor his life and work.

SIMON: Jonathan Senchyne is director of the Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture at University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Thanks so much for being with us.

SENCHYNE: It was a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.