The poet laureate of Chatham County was born a slave. Two hundred years after he was brought to the county by his owner, the citizens of Chatham are honoring their favorite son with the George Moses Horton Project, culminating with a Jubilee on Nov. 18 at the Pittsboro middle school bearing his name.
Until recently, many students attending Horton Middle School were not even aware that their school was named after a black man, much less a slave, and certainly not a famous poet. This school year, thanks to the Chatham County Arts Council, project director Marjorie Hudson, Horton school principal Sonya Leathers, the Black Historical Society and dozens of community educators, parents, writers, artists and volunteers, Horton students are learning some remarkable things about his history, and theirs.
They are learning that George Moses Horton was the first American to protest his slavery in poetry. According to his biographer Joan R. Sherman (The Black Bard of North Carolina: George Moses Horton and His Poetry, UNC Press, 1997), he was the first African American to publish a book in the South and the only slave to earn a significant income from selling his poems. He was also the only poet of any race to produce a book of poems before he could write and, the only slave to publish two volumes of poetry while in bondage and another shortly after his emancipation (after the close of the Civil War). Most amazing, Horton was the only slave to deliver an oration at UNC-Chapel Hill; he read all 29 pages of it in Gerrard Hall in 1859 to "young gentlemen of the freshman class."
The students are finding out that Horton was a man who so loved language that he learned to read and write when it was against the law. He made up rhymes to sell with his produce at the Chapel Hill farmers market; much of his income was earned by inventing acrostic love poems for university students to give to their sweethearts. Horton was a passionate abolitionist, who drew national attention to the issue and to himself with letters to newspapers. Novelist Caroline Lee Hentz took up his cause, helping him publish his poems in magazines up and down the East Coast. He became so well known that his benefactors, including N.C. Gov. John Owen, tried to help him raise enough money to buy his freedom. In his lifetime, Horton published three volumes: The Hope of Liberty (1829), Poetical Works (1845) and the boldly titled Naked Genius (1865).
Poetical Works includes Horton's powerful and touching autobiography. In it, he speaks of his struggles to teach himself to read: "On well nigh every Sabbath during the year, did I retire away in the summer season to some shady and lonely recess, when I could stammer over the dim and promiscuous syllables in my old black and tattered spelling book, sometimes a piece of one, and then of another; nor would I scarcely spare the time to return to my ordinary meals, being so truly engaged with my book."
The man who triumphed over such odds has not gone unnoticed in North Carolina. He was inducted into the N. C. Literary Hall of Fame in 1996. He has been honored with an academic society and major conference in his name, a UNC library exhibition and several Internet sites. In 1997, the Chatham County Commissioners declared Horton "Historic Poet Laureate" of the county and there are plans for a historic marker commemorating his years there.
Horton's recognition is crucial to history, but there is a deeper and more poignant significance to the introduction of this material into the community of Chatham County. For this generation of Horton Middle School students, the world is changed into something new: a world in which a slave could be an artist, an artist who belongs to them.
This knowledge is being transmitted not through a set of dry facts from a history book, but through the experience of art-making. Using school residencies with artists and scholars, the George Moses Horton Project is a daring adventure into arts-based education.
The powerhouse behind the project is writer Marjorie Hudson, a longtime county resident and Chatham-lover who started delving into the mystery of George Moses Horton back in 1993. Her interest in creating the project arose from her love for the county that has nurtured her, and her desire to "give something back." She wanted that something to be strongly positive. "We've had David Duke speak in this county, and other things that don't reflect what we care about," she says. Hudson and the multiracial project planning team went out of their way to team black presenters with white, to represent the unity they see in their home territory.
Percussionist Beverly Botsford and dancer Sherone Price were among the first of those teams to take the project into Horton School. Several hundred fifth and seventh graders stepped enthusiastically into African culture during their October African drum and dance residency. The two local artists came on strong in ethnic dress, and with a complete set of African drums. An auditorium full of kids jumped to their rhythms and listened at the edges of their seats to Botsford's tales. "Horton risked his life to express himself," she told them, "exploring unity and freedom and his rich cultural heritage from the continent of Africa."
Price, who had attended Horton as a youngster, had the students shouting Horton's name as if they were cheering a football player. He later revealed that during his years at Horton, he had no idea after whom the school was named. For the finale, a dozen students and faculty members were drafted on stage to dance and play the jimbe and the chekere. That Friday, folklorist Glenn Hinson carried the theme forward, leading seventh graders into the West African tradition of oral poetry, following it through slave rhymes, church-house recitations, house-party rhymes, the jubilee gospel, DJ patter and hip-hop.
The project's visual-art component, the George Moses Horton Freedom Path, is a spiral mosaic work permanently installed under a tree at the heart of the campus. Its images come from drawings by 100 fifth graders that interpret the Horton poem "On Summer"--images of cows and melons and bees expressed in tile by artist-in-residence Roxie Thomas and produced and installed by 30 volunteers. I caught up with them in the school's workroom, where the tile images were coming together. Thomas, a sculptor who teaches at the Ringling School of Art and Design in Gainesville, Fla., was visiting a friend in Chatham last spring and got swept into the project. "Community art is my favorite thing to do," she told me with a sheepish smile. "It's a healing thing."
A whole troop of performance poets will emerge from the nine-week residency of theater artist Lynn Johnson and the StreetSigns Institute. Using Horton's work as a springboard, the students are learning movement, improvisation and the performance of his and their own poetry. "These are great, with-it kids," Johnson says. "They already knew simile and metaphor, and had written some really good things." And in Mrs. Streets' eighth grade, students are learning to collect oral histories with folklorists Michelle McCullers and Joy Salyers. The youngsters have been interviewing elders in the community and recording their memories on the theme of "Hard Times in Chatham County."
The Horton Project is not limited to the activities at Horton Middle School. The project has donated Horton books and extensive teacher guides to all 15 public schools in the county. Seventy poems by Chatham country residents are in competition for first prize in the Community Poetry Contest, with African-American studies scholar Trudier Harris making the winning selection. To help draw county citizens together in unity "in a time of racial and cultural conflict," a countywide group is creating a quilt that, like the Freedom Path, draws its images from Horton's vision of Chatham County in "On Summer." Poet Jaki Shelton Green has a poetry residency at Moncure School, and Trudier Harris lectured on African-American poetry in Siler City. A Horton descendant is researching a family tree, and storyteller Barbara Lott will tell the Horton tale in the county's elementary schools.
Horton Project events climax with the Jubilee on Nov. 18, featuring the poetry contest awards, addresses by novelist Doris Betts and Trudier Harris, remarks by Horton School alumni and presentations by the different school and community projects. Chuck Davis' African American Dance Ensemble will perform and lead a workshop. The Horton Middle School Chorale will premiere a new choral work by composer Scott Tilley, based on the Horton poem "The Old Carriage Horse." But the spirit of the Horton Project will continue far past the Jubilee, with classes, workshops and other activities throughout the school year.
The Chatham community has made a remarkable commitment to this undertaking, and the list of academic, civic and business contributors is surprisingly extensive. Together, they prove that the people of Chatham County--black and white--want and need this arts project.
Marjorie Hudson, a poet in her own right, was drawn to it for very personal reasons. "Horton is one of my heroes," she told me as we stood in the front yard of her Chatham County farm a few weeks ago. "He was a poet who made money. He speaks to any artist who strives." Hudson chose "On Summer" for the school projects because she likes the way it celebrates the processes of nature. "He loved the power of the land, despite his hardships," she said. "Places hold stories, you know." Looking up the road in the direction of the plantation where Horton worked, she said, "It's only three or four miles from here. If you go to Mt. Gilead Church Road, you can see the old farm road that ends at our farm. I like to think this was the way he walked to Chapel Hill."
The George Moses Horton Jubilee activities are set for 2-5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18, at George Moses Horton Middle School in Pittsboro, on Hwy. 15-501 south of the Pittsboro traffic circle. For more Jubilee information, call the Chatham County Arts Council, 919-542-0394. For more on Horton and his work, visit the project Web site (www.chathamarts.org/horton) and follow its links to other Horton sites.