'the remarkable life of our namesake'

The legacy of George Moses Horton, lauded Chatham poet born in slavery


When Valencia Toomer became principal of Horton Middle School in June of 2016, she knew she wanted to find a way to celebrate the school’s namesake. By the following February, George Moses Horton Day was born.

“Many kids arrive on a campus without ever knowing the history,” Toomer said. “It was extremely important to me as the principal to make sure that the students knew the remarkable life of our namesake.”

George Moses Horton — Horton Middle’s namesake — was a lauded poet born into slavery on William Horton’s Chatham tobacco plantation in 1798. He spent much of his life living in Chatham, composing love poems for students and nearby UNC-Chapel to give to their sweethearts. Horton worked to purchase his freedom with money earned through his published poetry collections, but his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful despite public support — he settled in Philadelphia after living 68 years as an enslaved person, and died in 1883.

A marker recognizing Horton stands along U.S. Hwy. 15-501 North in northern Chatham. It commemorates his “The Hope of Liberty,” which was the first book published by a Black author in the South in 1829 — despite the fact Horton didn’t learn to write until a few years later in 1832, according to the Poetry Foundation. Before that, Horton had composed poetry in his head, with assistance from Caroline Lee Whiting Hentz, a novelist who transcribed his poetry and helped publish it in the newspaper.

At this year’s Chatham Community NAACP Branch #5377’s Jubilee Day — celebrating 158 years since the Emancipation Proclamation was issued — the group honored Horton’s legacy through a presentation by Marjorie Hudson, founder and director of the George Moses Horton Project and Jubilee.

During her presentation, Hudson pointed out there was a discrepancy of knowledge in Chatham regarding the life of Horton, as well as whether or not people know he is the namesake of Horton Middle School, originally founded "Pittsboro Colored School" for Black Children in the 1930s, and then renamed "Horton High School" in 1934.

“What white people and Black people know about history is two different things,” Hudson said at that event.

For Toomer, who left Horton Middle last year to found The School of the Arts for Boys Academy (SABA), ensuring the school community and larger Chatham community not only knew about Horton’s life, but celebrated it, was extremely important. The inaugural event featured Dan Tate’s “Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton,” a children’s book illustrating Horton’s life. Toomer said the school invited Tate, Horton’s alumni and CCS central services and administration.

Leading up to that first event, Toomer said students read Tate’s book, competed in door-decorating contests, poetry slams and more.

“The halls were just filled with moments of saying, ‘Hey, who is our namesake? And why is he important?” Toomer said.

This year is set to be the fifth celebration of George Moses Horton Day on Feb. 26 at the school, said Principal Bradyn Robinson, but the school has really been celebrating all month. This year, due to COVID-19 protocol, Robinson said community members aren’t able to attend, which is much different than in years past.

“So it’s different because of Covid, but we are still celebrating,” he said. “On the 26th, it’ll still be ingrained in the day, it just looks different this year.”

Robinson said plans to have students meet Horton alumni to learn about the history of the school have been pushed to next year. Toomer emphasized that alumni from Horton were crucial in pulling initial celebration efforts together and keeping it up year after year. She’s thankful to the community too, “because so many people showed up.”

“I did not realize that many people just didn’t know this. They didn’t — I was shocked,” Toomer said. “But I was thankful that it was placed on my heart to do it, and now it has the opportunity to be ingrained as a forever tradition of Horton Middle School.”

At the Chatham County Board of Education’s regular session meeting Monday night, Chatham Community NAACP Branch President Mary Nettles asked the board during public comments to formally rename the school “George Moses Horton Middle School” to more explicitly honor his legacy. Nettles attended the school in the 1960s, when it was still a high school.

Her branch, in partnership with the Chatham Remembrance Coalition, started an online petition on Jan. 25 requesting the name change, and had nearly 250 signatures by the time of publication. Nettles cited the fact that CCS already had schools in the district with full names, including Perry W. Harrison Elementary, Margaret B. Pollard Middle and more.

“Chatham County will be 250 years old in April 2021. What a wonderful start for justice this would be for residents living in Chatham County for the name change to take place,” Nettles said. “The renaming will grant this world-class poet, Mr. George Moses Horton, the true recognition, dignity and remembrance deserved of a man in whose honor the school was named.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Horton didn't learn to read until 1832, but he had been reading for many years before, composing poetry in his head. He didn't learn how to write until 1832. The article has been updated.

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @HannerMcClellan.