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FEBRUARY 2007
LESSONS TO BE GAINED FROM POET-SLAVE

Carolina George Moses Horton, the noted local poet and slave, still has plenty to teach our community today.

At Carolina, we were proud to honor his legacy during a dedication ceremony at the residence hall on south campus that now bears his name. On Feb. 12, about 100 students, faculty and staff gathered with some of Horton's descendants, historians and other scholars to celebrate his great achievements.

Enslaved in the first half of the 19th century in Chatham County, Horton walked into Chapel Hill on Saturdays, at first to sell his master's fruits and vegetables and later to compose acrostics -- poems using the letters of a person's name, for instance, to begin each line -- out of the names of sweethearts of the young white men enrolled at the university.

Composing poetry before he knew how to write, Horton convinced a teacher's wife to teach him to write and encouraged a college president to purchase his freedom. History does not record the first time Horton came to Carolina, but by the time he turned 20, he was already composing acrostics and other poems.

Dr. Trudier Harris, a Horton scholar and the J. Carlyle Sitterson professor of English, speaking at the dedication of George Moses Horton Residence Hall, said we should think of Horton himself as a poem: "One thing we in academia like to do is interpret poetry. So what does George Moses Horton, the poem, mean to us?

"It means, first of all, that he was about intellectual engagement," she continued. "He joined with Frederick Douglass in not allowing the mind to be enslaved. He, like Douglass, might have had someone claiming to own his body, but his mind was free -- free to create, free to compose poetry, free to think thoughts of liberty, free to take advantage of Caroline Hentz's instruction when she taught him how to write, free to eat whatever crumbs might have been dropped from the intellectual tables of those he encountered, free to be a student in whatever environment he found himself."

Harris, founder of the George Moses Horton Society for the Study of African American Poetry, then asked, "Can students in the 21st century afford to do, to be, any less?"

Can any of us?

Though custom and law denied Horton the opportunity to be a student, he spent many years here, more than any student, honing his writing skills while gaining the support of university presidents and others. Had Horton been a Carolina student, university leaders would now be proudly proclaiming his association with this university. He is a distinguished literary talent to be listed with other notable Carolina authors, among them Thomas Wolfe, Shelby Foote, Russell Banks, Jill McCorkle and Walker Percy.

Horton Residence Hall is one of four residence halls built in 2002 to help reshape south campus through the campus master plan. The naming is a part of a broader effort to understand the university's history. We seek to acknowledge it for what it was. While there are indications that Horton Hall is the nation's first university building to be named for a slave, that is not why we did it. We did it to tell the truth, the whole truth about the history of the university, to acknowledge the fact of slavery, and to honor one who rose above it. It is a frank acknowledgement of our past as well as an expression of our values today.

Our intent is not to revise the university's history, but to add to it; to reach back and to retrieve the many strands of our history that have been dropped or ignored along the way. As scholars, educators and students, we are responsible for remembering and honoring the past, in all of its complexities and dark moments. It is important for us to do so, not just for our generation but also for the generations who will follow us.

By adding the name of George Moses Horton to the campus landscape in a permanent way, we acknowledge a great talent who sprang from this community. He is now one of seven African Americans to be currently honored by having their names on buildings at Carolina, and another will join those ranks when we build a new grounds facility.

Several Horton poems are being reproduced on panels that will hang inside the building that bears his name so that those who live, study, work and visit there can continue to learn about this man and his contributions to the fabric of this community. As a verse from one of Horton's poems says:

"I know that I am old

And never can recover what is past,

But for the future may some light unfold and soar from ages blast."

 

James Moeser is chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He welcomes readers’ messages at jmoeser@unc.edu





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