Stanford University
George Moses Horton, the 19th Century Hip-Hop Poet
We think of Hip Hop and artists like Jay-Z as modern phenomena. But the life of George Moses Horton (1798-1883), the famous poet, entrepreneur, and slave, demonstrates that we need to see this as a much longer history. Moreover, Horton allows us a glimpse into the ephemeral world of nineteenth century oral culture. Through Horton, this project hopes to re-open this aural component of nineteenth century life.

Horton first gained his fame while selling fruit at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was there that Horton began reciting his poetry for the young white elite upper class men at the University. Admirers would flock to Horton to have him produce poems for their significant others. In return, students would pay between 25-75 cents per poem. This money allowed Horton to spend most of his time at the University since the amount of money he was making from his poems could pay for 4 working slaves in his stead. Despite Horton's popularity on campus, it was still illegal for Horton to read and write his own poems. However, the wife of a UNC French Professor, Caroline Lee Hentz, took interest in Horton and his poetry. Horton dictated his oral poetry to Hentz (herself a novelist and poet), and she in turn not only tutored him in grammar, but also sent his poetry to a Massachusetts newspaper.

Eventually with the help of Caroline Hentz and the support of 100 white sponsors, George Moses Horton became the first African American to publish a book of poetry -- The Hope of Liberty (1829) -- while still a slave. Although Horton had a substantial following of fans and admirers, including President James L. Polk, the Governor of North Carolina, and the President of UNC at Chapel Hill, who promised his freedom, he was freed only with the Union Army defeating the South. Horton’s story doesn’t end here, though. Captain William Banks of the Union army took Horton under his personal protection and helped him publish his third book of poetry, The Naked Poet (1865). After his time working with Captain Banks, Horton went to Philadelphia in 1866, where he lived until his death in 1883. Because Horton lived a long time, his perspective covers the beginning of slavery, the climax, and its fall. He, thus, offers us a rare and important lens not only on the experience of slaves and former slaves, but also on the difficult to study oral culture of nineteenth century African Americans.

As an important and understudied historical figure, Horton presents the potential to do something unique in the digital humanities: recapture the importance of aurality and orality. One of our longer envisioned goals is to potentially create a digital version of Horton, where participants would interact with him as the undergraduate students at Chapel Hill did over a century and a half ago. People would request a poem from the “Hortonizer,” would then have to write down the poem, and read it back. This would make it possible for people to better understand oral culture, and would also create a database for researchers to explore the orality of poetry. In addition, Professor Brown has located the last descendant of George Moses Horton and will conduct DNA tests in the hopes of using modern genetic tools to better understand Horton's life. Through digital technology, we hope to recover the lost voice of this great witness to the birth of Modern American poetry and Hip-Hop.

Former Lab Staff:
Celena Allen, Gabriel Wolfenstein
Former Research Assistants:
Sera Park, Danny Towns

Spatial History