University Names Building After a Local Slave and Poet

The University of North Carolina is naming a building after a slave who worked nearby and used to come to campus to recite poetry. Decades before the Civil War, George Moses Horton was known on campus as a talented speaker and poet, and students often paid him to create poems for them.

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The University of North Carolina is commemorating part of its history that's rarely talked about. The school is renaming one of its dormitories for a 19th-century slave, an African-American who was well known on campus in the decades before the Civil War.

NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

The nation's colleges have many buildings named for slave owners, the planters and patriarchs who helped build America's cities and schools. But scholars say that North Carolina is the first major predominantly white university to name a building for a slave. George Moses Horton worked on a plantation not far from campus but also developed an unusual reputation as southern poet.

Associate Dean Bill Andrews says the newly named dormitory will honor Horton's legacy.

Mr. BILL ANDREWS (Associate Dean, University of North Carolina): I think it will convey the message that African Americans, even those in slavery, made an important commitment to the University of North Carolina, not just with their hands, but in George Moses Horton's case, with his head and with his heart.

HOCHBERG: Historians say Horton was a common campus figure in the 1800s. His master initially sent him there to sell vegetables. But students soon discovered his talent as a speaker. Though he had no formal education, he was able to create, memorize and recite elaborate poems.

Marjorie Hudson is a modern-day writer who's worked to raise awareness of Horton's talents.

Ms. MARJORIE HUDSON (Poet): He would get up and spout poetry extemporaneously. This is what got the students' attention and got them starting to pay him to create poems for their treasured sweethearts, you know. So all this time he's out in the fields slaving away, his mind is at work creating couplets and quatrains and poems.

HOCHBERG: Despite years of trying, Horton never raised enough money selling poetry to buy his own freedom, but he did publish three books of his work on subjects like love, scholarship and nature.

Ms. HUDSON: I guess my favorite stanza is this one: “On fertile borders near the stream, now gaze with pleasure and delight. See loaded vines with melons teem, ‘tis paradise to human sight.” I just love that.

HOCHBERG: University officials are expected to formally announce the new building name later this year. But there's already plenty of excitement at the home of Marion and June Horton, a retired accountant and former teacher who are believed to be George Moses's descendants.

Ms. JUNE HORTON (North Carolina resident): I do have a family tree.

HOCHBERG: June Horton's research suggests Marion is a relative of George Moses, four generations removed. And with the new building name, Marion hopes George's memory will stay alive for generations to come.

Mr. MARION HORTON (North Carolina resident): I think if the young students, if they stop and look at the building and if they go back and read some of George Moses's works, I think they will understand what kind of person he was and they probably would be very, very proud.

HOCHBERG: The dormitory that will bear Horton's name was built four years ago. But until now, it shared the name of a neighboring dorm, the Hinton James Residence Hall. James was the university's first student and was a slave owner. Now the two buildings, one named for a slave and one for a master, will stand side by side, each remembering a different part of southern history.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

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