It was one of Tate’s writer friends who suggested Tate write about the slave poet after whom UNC was thinking about naming a building.
“I became so intrigued with the story that I started on the process of telling that story that afternoon,” Tate said.
UNC did name a building after Horton — the residence hall was completed in 2002 and is thought to be the first university building in the country to be named after a slave.
And Thursday, Tate is coming to UNC — where his subject lived and worked — as the first stop on his tour for his new children’s book, “Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton.”
Horton, who was a slave in Chatham County, became known in the UNC community after he started selling acrostic love poems, said Bob Anthony, curator of Wilson Library’s N.C. Collection. Members of the all-male UNC student body would buy these poems to send home to their girlfriends.
Horton was the first African-American to publish a book in the South, and he published three books of poetry in his lifetime — some of which are held at Wilson Library.
“In some ways, he’s been called North Carolina’s first professional poet because he was essentially buying his time and selling his poems,” Anthony said. “There’s probably no other writer in North Carolina history who overcame as many obstacles to publish as George Moses Horton.”
Tate said the part of Horton’s story that struck him the most was his desire to learn to read — which he eventually taught himself to do.
“I thought that was the story because that was the part I really fell in love with,” Tate said. “But because he became literate, that took him on this great journey. And I thought, I can’t end the story there — he’s done too much.”
To research for his book, Tate read Horton’s poems, writings and biography through online resources from Wilson Library.
Donald Holmes, a graduate student at UNC, said he thinks it’s important to give children the opportunity to learn about Horton in a fun and interesting way.
“The book really gives a true glimpse of the life of George Moses Horton,” he said. “I think a person — on my level, a Ph.D. student, or an undergraduate or a 5-year-old — can really learn a lot from this nice little, utterly important book.”
Tate said although he didn’t try to be didactic in his book, he hopes his readers grasp the power of reading to change lives.
“George was enslaved, and he wanted to learn how to read, and because he became literate — because he learned how to read — that took him places he never would have imagined,” he said. “I think that George’s life serves as an example of where reading can take you.”