George Moses Horton: Slavery from a Poet's Perspective

A Social Studies Lesson Plan for Grades 3-5

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George Moses Horton was a poet from North Carolina who lived most of his life in slavery. This lesson provides an opportunity for students to learn about slavery through the experiences of an enslaved poet and through one of his poems. Horton was the first slave to publish anti-slavery poetry; the first black American to publish a book in the South; the only enslaved person to earn a living as a poet; and the only known poet in American history to produce a book of poems before he was able to write. Horton's life reveals aspects of slavery that were rare yet important parts of the institution, such as virtual freedom, hiring one's own time, and slave entrepreneurship. Many of Horton's experiences were also common within slavery such as: seeking literacy and greater knowledge when there were few opportunities for education; attempting to purchase his freedom from an owner who refused to sell; and constantly yearning to be free. Since most people who wrote poetry about slavery were not enslaved, Horton's poems on this subject provide a rare opportunity to examine the institution from the perspective of a slave.

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students will be able to:

Guiding Questions

What can we learn about slavery through exploring the experiences and literary work of enslaved poet, George Moses Horton?

Suggested Time

1-2 class periods

Preparing to Teach the Lesson

  1. If you are already familiar with George Moses Horton, skip to step 2. To learn about Horton you can read a brief biography in Teacher Tool 1. You can also read an overview of his life on the Documenting the American South website.
  2. For a greater understanding of Horton's views of slavery, you may read some of his other works such as:
  3. Review Teacher Tool 2, which provides an overview of virtual freedom.
  4. Review Teacher Tool 3, which provides an overview of enslaved entrepreneurship.
  5. Review the PDF slide show that accompanies this lesson plan and Teacher Tool 4. The PDF slides are intended to introduce students to George Moses Horton and Teacher Tool 4 contains lecture notes on the life of Horton to accompany each of the slides.
  6. Review Teacher Tool 5, which contains the poem, "Slavery." Horton's poetry is sophisticated for elementary students, but you can encourage them to grasp the essence of this particular poem by focusing on certain parts. Certain verses of the poem, which may be comprehensible to elementary students, are emphasized in bold. Read the poem carefully and decide which parts you will highlight in class.
  7. Review Student Handout 1, which contains question about George Moses Horton's life based on each PDF slide.
  8. Review the short video George Moses Horton, Poet Entrepreneur. This video demonstrates how Horton turned his literary talent into a business writing love poems. This venture was a precursor to the greeting card business of today.

Teaching the Lesson (Suggested Steps)

  1. Explain to students that the topic of the lesson is a man named George Moses Horton, an American poet who lived in the South before the Civil War. To engage student interest, open the lesson plan by showing the short video titled George Moses Horton, Poet Entrepreneur. Withhold that Horton was enslaved until after students see the video as this should come as a surprise and spark further interest in Horton.
  2. Using Teacher Tool 4 as a lecture reference, present the PDF slide show to introduce George Moses Horton. Stop the slide show at slide 9. Slides 10 and 11 will be used later.
  3. Distribute Student Handout 1 and show each slide again, allowing students time to write a brief response to each question.
  4. Using the information in Teacher Tools 2 and 3, provide students with an overview of the concepts of virtual freedom and enslaved entrepreneurship, noting that Horton turned his poetry into a successful business, which allowed him to live in virtual freedom while paying his owner a portion of his profits. Be sure to note that not all of Horton's experiences as a slave were unusual, highlighting the many limitations that he shared with the majority of those enslaved such as seeking literacy and greater knowledge when there were few opportunities for education; attempting to purchase his freedom from an owner who refused to sell; and constantly yearning to be free.
  5. Show PDF slides 10 and 11, which present Horton's poem, "Slavery." Read the poem aloud to your class. Tell them that it is not important for them to understand each word or line of the poem, but that they should note that this was written by an enslaved man and is evidence of his intelligence and literary strengths.
  6. Using the bold passages in Teacher Tool 5 or other parts of the poem that you preselected, try to help students understand the fundamentals of Horton's "Slavery." You can ask them questions about the various passages and help them with the vocabulary. For example, you might ask questions like: What did Horton think about slavery? What words tell you this? What are the feelings about slavery that the poem conveys? What words make you feel these emotions?

Extending the Lesson

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