There are five buildings on UNC’s campus that are named after African-Americans. There is only one named after a former slave: Horton Residence Hall.
The residence hall opened in 2002 and was originally named Hinton James North due to its close proximity to Hinton James. In 2006, the University renamed the residence hall after George Moses Horton, a slave and poet.
Much of the information regarding George Horton relates to the love poems he would write for students on UNC's campus. Horton wrote acrostic poems, poems that spell something out as people read down the first column, for male students at UNC.
Horton’s journey involved more than just showcasing his talents. He spent his one day off traveling eight miles on Sundays from Hillsborough to sell produce to students. Eventually he was able to showcase his novel skills with language.
Horton began writing the acrostic love poems for the students on campus. Suitors gave him the name of their love interest, and he produced poems, spelling out their names. For his time, Horton was truly pushing the boundaries. English and comparative literature professor Michael McFee said no other Southern slave was publicly selling poems.
In his autobiography, he wrote about his days traveling to sell fruit and how he managed to begin to his writing business.
“Somehow or other (the students at UNC) discovered a spark of genius in me, either by discourse or other means, which excited their curiosity,” Horton said in his autobiography titled, "The Poetical Works of George M. Horton."
Horton wasn’t shy about his talents either. He relished in the possibility of showcasing his capabilities.
“All eyes were on me, and all ears were open," Horton said. "Many were at first incredulous, but the experiment of acrostics established it as an incontestable fact.”
However, Horton was more than just a love poet. There was nothing more in the world that Horton wanted than his freedom, so he developed a plan. He hoped to buy his freedom by selling his poems, hence why he wrote many of them.
Eliza Richards, an associate professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, is currently archiving Horton’s work.
“He really was talented, and he wrote all kinds of other things besides these acrostics so that's what I want to stress," Richards said. "He's a really versatile poet.”
His work captures the subtleties of nature and grapples with the idea of being owned by another man. In "Death of an Old Carriage Horse", Horton uses the metaphor of a horse drawing a carriage to represent his feelings about slavery.
“He also wrote very passionate poems about being a slave. One of his most famous poems was ‘The Slave’s Complaint," McFee said.
Below is an excerpt of “The Slave's Complaint” where Horton details his feelings about being a slave.
“Am I sadly cast aside
On misfortune’s rugged tide?
Will the world my pains deride
Must I dwell in Slavery’s night
And all pleasure take its flight
Far beyond my feeble sight
Although Horton was never able to buy his freedom, his impact on poetry is apparent. After his emancipation, Horton traveled north to Philadelphia, where he continued his writing.
“I think that’s wonderful that he was seeing his poetry as a means to this very important human value,” English and comparative literature professor Beverly Taylor said.
Before the novel era, poetry was the most sophisticated form of story-telling.Richards said that during the 19th century, poetry was the standard place where difficult conversations took place and for Horton, as an African-American slave, using poetry to challenge societal norms was truly remarkable.
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