Around 1817, George Moses Horton, an enslaved young man from Chatham County, N.C., began walking to the town of Chapel Hill on weekends to sell his owner’s fruit. Horton, who had taught himself to read but could not yet write, also offered more unusual goods: poems.
He started with acrostic love poems, which he would create for verse-challenged undergraduate swains at the University of North Carolina, at 25 cents a pop and up. He also began publishing more serious poems, like “On Liberty and Slavery,” in newspapers, and in 1829 became the first African-American in the South to publish a book.
His efforts to gain freedom through his writing failed. But he was able to buy his time from his owner, and spent the years until the Civil War working on campus as a handyman, servant and something of an unofficial poet in residence, ultimately leaving behind three books and dozens of poems.