Slave-era poet George Moses Horton, others remembered at talk

ajames@newsobserver.comNovember 17, 2013 

— North Carolina’s history of slavery became a bit more personal on Sunday.

At the North Carolina Museum of History event, Lucinda MacKethan, N.C. State English professor emerita, read poems and narratives written by slaves, expressing in their own voices what it felt like only to be able to dream of freedom.

Her talk, entitled “Was I Born for This? The North Carolina Slave Voices,” got its name from George Moses Horton, a slave who lived in Chatham County in the 1830s.

He wrote, “Alas! and am I born for this?/To wear this slavish chain?/Deprived of all created bliss,/Through hardship, toil, and pain!”

“Freedom was a commodity that could be bought and sold,” MacKethan said.

In 1830, North Carolina passed a law that prohibited teaching writing and reading to slaves.

Horton’s master allowed him to visit the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he recited poems to students. The students wrote them down and paid him for his work, which sometimes included love poems they’d ask him to create.

‘Brain drain’ lamented

He tried to raise enough money to buy his own freedom, but his master refused. At the end of the Civil War, Horton was freed and moved to Massachusetts.

North Carolina missed out on an important generation of writers because once they were freed, most of them moved North, MacKethan said.

“What a brain drain we experienced when these writers were being booted from the state for nothing,” she said.

A law in 1830 said that for slaves freed in North Carolina, they must leave the state within 90 days of freedom.

Quaker groups taught slaves how to read and write once they were freed, making it possible to publish the poems and narratives available today.

None of the slaves MacKethan discussed succeeded in buying their own freedom with their writing. But, some, upon being free, made money with their work that they used to buy freedom for relatives.

That was the case for Moses Grandy, who dictated his narrative to a British writer upon being freed. He bought freedom for his relatives.

MacKethan also discussed Lunsford Lane, a slave who lived in Raleigh, and who published an autobiography about his time as a slave. Harriet Jacobs was another prominent slave writer; Charles Chesnutt, born free in Cleveland to an African-American couple who then moved South, was mentioned, too.

‘It’s been an education’

Many of the 50 or 60 audience members who attended the talk weren’t born in North Carolina.

Christina Stableford, a marketing professional in Raleigh, attended the lecture to learn more about this state she’s called home for 20 years.

“It’s been an education for me to get a better understanding of how deeply entrenched in the social and economic history slavery is in the South,” Stableford said.

MacKethan asked the audience about the future of the state and how freedom was treated today. A couple of people in attendance cited legislative actions in the past year and connected the views on race in contemporary North Carolina to the state’s past.

“We carry this history every day as we move forward and parts of it have not been effectively addressed,” Stableford said afterward in an interview.

Jacklyn McClamb of Cary said she was impressed with the quality of writing.

“It was striking to learn from a literary perspective that this was suppressed, but it is good, quality literature,” McClamb said.

The talk paired with an exhibit at the museum, “Freedom Coming, Freedom for All,” which chronicles the history of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in 1863.

James: 919-553-7234

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