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.
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.