BuRy Me in a FreE LaND

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1760 - 1899

Jupiter Hammon, an enslaved man from New York, becomes the first Black poet published in North America with his poem “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penetential [sic] Cries,” composed on Christmas Day in December 1760.


Salvation now comes from the Lord,
He being thy captive slave.

“An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penetential [sic] Cries”
Jupiter Hammon, 1760

Come you, Phillis, now aspire,
And seek the living God,
So step by step mayst go higher,
Till perfect in the word.

“An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly”
Jupiter Hammon, 1778
An engraving of Phillis Wheatley, “Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston.”
The slave ship Phillis arrives in Boston Harbor carrying only “refuse slaves”—the Africans who were not desirable enough to be bought for plantation work—including a young, unhealthy girl who would be purchased cheaply and renamed Phillis Wheatley after the slave ship and her new owner, John Wheatley. She is the first woman of African descent to be published in the Americas.  

In 1978, Robert Hayden would write, “A Letter from Phillis Wheatley.”

Ah! Cruel blindness to Columbia's state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.
Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev'ry action let the goddess guide.

“To His Excellency General Washington” Phillis Wheatley, 1775

Lowering his eyes to fields
sweet with the rot of spring, he could see
a government's domed city
rising from the morass and spreading
in a spiral of lights

Rita Dove, 1983
Benjamin Banneker, astronomer, farmer, and mathematician, is hired to help survey land for the development of Washington, DC.
Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution, seated on a horse with his sword raised.
The Haitian Revolution—the violent and successful uprising of slaves, former slaves, and people of color against colonial forces—shocks the United States and other western nations. Many slavery apologists would use the Revolution’s violent unrest as justification for the perpetuation of slavery in the US. Others— particularly Black people—would find inspiration in the Revolution and the resulting country of Haiti, itself led by people of color. Yet the fear of a similar uprising in the US led many slaveholders to implement more restrictive measures of control over enslaved populations.

Soul dignity was thine and purest aim;
And ah! how sad that thou wast left to mourn
In chains 'neath alien skies.

“Toussaint L'Ouverture”
Henrietta Cordelia Ray, 1910

I was fifteen when you took me,
Your daughter's nursemaid;
You brushed my cheek
With your red-plumed chest
Whispering Martha, Martha--
Piercing me with the name
Of your dead wife, my white half-sister
Whom I resembled.

“Sally Hemings to Thomas Jefferson”
Cyrus Cassells, 1984
The first child of Sally Hemings and her owner, Thomas Jefferson, is born.

Nearly two centuries later, in 1983, Cyrus Cassells writes “Sally Hemings to Thomas Jefferson”

Oh no; they fought, as they believed,
For the inherent rights of man
But mark how they have been deceived
By slavery's accursed plan.

James M. Whitfield, 1853

Those days I lie on my cot,
shivering in the early heat,
and as the fields unfold to whiteness,
and they spill like bees among the fat flowers,
I weep. It is not yet daylight.

“The House Slave”
Rita Dove, 2016
Enslaved Virginian Gabriel Prosser plans a slave rebellion that is foiled before it can begin, resulting in the executions of himself and twenty-five others. Because many white Americans were already anxious from the violent racial uprising in the Haitian Revolution, and to maintain social control despite their disproportionately small numbers, some legislatures pass new laws restricting the movement of slaves.
Despite his inability to write and his status as an enslaved person, North Carolinian George Moses Horton recites his original poems to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students in exchange for money and in 1829 publishes his first book of poetry, Hope of Liberty. During this time, the African American newspaper Freedom’s Journal publishes some of Horton’s poetry and forges an unsuccessful campaign to establish his freedom.

Some philanthropic souls as from afar,
With pity strove to break the slavish bar;
To whom my floods of gratitude shall roll,
And yield with pleasure to their soft control.

“On hearing of the intention of a gentleman to purchase the Poet's freedom”
George Moses Horton, 1829

A month—
his person (is that all?) found face-down
in the doorway at Brattle Street,
his frame slighter than his friends remembered.

“David Walker”
Rita Dove, 1979
Free Black abolitionist David Walker publishes his incendiary Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, which argued for racial equality and urged decisive—even violent—action to achieve it. In response, many Southern states banned possession or distribution of the Appeal, and several bounties were offered for Walker’s capture or killing.

I who speak according to prophecy
In his name I say Come
For the thousands gone, Come
For the living the dead and the not yet born,
I say Come

“Nat Turner or Let Him Come (An Invitational Appeal)”
Samuel Allen, 1987

Very soon the Yankee teachers
Came down and set up school;
But oh! how the Rebs did hate it,—
It was agin' their rule.

“Learning to Read”
Frances E. W. Harper, 1891
The legacy of the first colored convention is evident in this depiction of the 1876 Colored National Convention in Nashville.
The “First Annual Convention of the People of Colour” is held in Philadelphia, aimed at improving the situation of African Americans in the United States. Like the many “Colored Conventions” that follow over the coming two decades, it helps forge an active community through reform and the establishment of schools, literary societies, and fundraising drives.
Sarah Louisa Forten's antislavery poem "The Grave of the Slave" is published in The Liberator

The grave to the weary is welcomed and blest:
And death, to the captive, is freedom and rest.

“The Grave of the Slave”
Sarah Louisa Forten, 1831

I wonder where is all my relations
Friendship to all—and every nation.

“Pottery verse”
David Drake
The first known pot made by enslaved South Carolinian pot maker David Drake is produced. Despite South Carolina’s Slave Codes that outlaw writing by enslaved people, Drake sometimes incises his pottery with lines of original verse, creating a unique record of African American poetry during the antebellum decades.
Death of Capt. Ferrer, the Captain of the Amistad, July, 1839, 1840 lithograph by John Warner Barber.
The kidnapped Mende Africans aboard the Spanish slave ship Amistad execute a successful mutiny and take over the ship near Cuba but are eventually captured in American waters. A high-profile legal case to determine the fate of the now imprisoned Mende fuels the abolitionist cause in the US. In 1841, the United States Supreme Court affirms an earlier ruling to release the Mende and declare them free.

All hail! thou truly noble chief,
Who scorned to live a cowering slave;
Thy name shall stand on history's leaf,
Amid the mighty and the brave.

“To Cinqué”
James M. Whitfield, 1853

Our country is cultur'd, And looks all sublime,
Our fathers are sleeping who lived in the time
That I tell. Oh! Could I tell them my grief
In its flow, that in roaming, we find no relief.

“The Natives of America”
Ann Plato, 1841
In Hartford, CT, sixteen-year-old Ann Plato publishes a book of essays and poems, including “The Natives of America” and “Reflections.”
Creole Louisiana poet of color Armand Lanusse edits Les Cenelles, a poetry collection by contemporary Louisiana poets of color, including Camille Thierry and Pierre Dalcour. The book is often considered the first anthology of African American literature.

Poor child!
Had I had, to make myself shine forth
A brilliant, striking garment,
Across the mist and haze,
I would perhaps have seen
A glowing ray of sunshine!

“Idées” (Ideas)
Camille Thierry

[T]his man, this Douglass,
this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien

“Frederick Douglass”
Robert Hayden, 1966
Frederick Douglass in an 1854 engraving by J. C. Buttre.
Seven years after running away to escape slavery, Frederick Douglass publishes his influential Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). The autobiographical account demonstrates the cruelty of slavery, further fueling the abolitionist movement. Douglass’s antislavery activism was significantly influenced by William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, and in 1847 he creates his own influential abolitionist newspaper, the North Star (later renamed Frederick Douglass’ Paper). Douglass is often regarded as a preeminent voice of antebellum abolitionism.

In 1966, Robert Hayden publishes “Frederick Douglas,” and in 2011 Evie Shockley publishes “The Lost Letters of Frederick Douglass.”

James Whitfield, and barber and poet, publishes America, and Other Poems, which includes both “America” and “To Cinque” and would mark the start of his career in abolitionism.

America, it is to thee,
Thou boasted land of liberty,--
It is to thee I raise my song,
Thou land of blood, and crime, and wrong.

James M. Whitfield, 1853

Too briefly the sunshine is darken'd by storms:
Hope minstrels it onward, yet never informs
Of the dangers unseen, that impede.

“Hope and Confidence”
Charles L. Reason, 1854
British abolitionist Julia Griffiths publishes Autographs for Freedom, an anthology of antislavery writings featuring an introduction and poem by Charles L. Reason and a poem by George B. Vashon.
Lucy Terry’s “Bars Fight,” first composed in 1746 and transmitted orally for over a century, is finally published in print.

Samuel Allen like a hero fout,
And though he was so brave and bold
His face no more shall we behold [...]
Young Samuel Allen, Oh lack-a-day!
Was taken and carried to Canada.

“Bars Fight”
Lucy Terry, 1855

A double-stranded white necklace
More ribbon
A string of beads
A skein of gold thread [...]
Then, in 1751:
3 sheets of paper.

“Lucy Terry Prince Prepares
for Her Marriage”
Robin Coste Lewis, 2017

We must educate the heart,--
Teach it hatred of oppression,
Truest love of God and man;
Thus our high and holy calling
May accomplish his great plan.

“In the Path of Duty”
Charlotte Forten Grimke, 1855
This 1888 print shows a portrait of Abraham Lincoln flanked by American flags above the text of the Emancipation Proclamation. The figures of Justice and Liberty stand on either side of the Proclamation.
The kidnapped Mende Africans aboard the Spanish slave ship Amistad execute a successful mutiny and take over the ship near Cuba but are eventually captured in American waters. A high-profile legal case to determine the fate of the now imprisoned Mende fuels the abolitionist cause in the US. In 1841, the United States Supreme Court affirms an earlier ruling to release the Mende and declare them free.

Make me a grave where'er you will,
In a lowly plain, or a lofty hill,
Make it among earth's humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.

“Bury Me in a Free Land”
Frances E. W. Harper, 1858

She is a mother pale with fear,
Her boy clings to her side [...]
He is not hers, for cruel hands
May rudely tear apart
The only wreath of household love
That binds her breaking heart.

“The Slave Mother”
Frances E. W. Harper, 1854
Emancipation, 1865 wood engraving by Thomas Nast. The left side shows the bitterness of slavery; the middle section, representing emancipation, shows a Black family gathered around a "union" stove. The images on the right represent Nash's optimistic hopes for the future: Black Americans attending school, earning wages, and existing in harmony with whites.
The Thirteenth Amendment abolishes slavery in the United States.
Alfred R. Waud, The Freedmen's Bureau, 1868. Standing before an American flag, a figure representing the Freedmen's Bureau, which was created to provide support and protection to the millions recently freed from bondage, prevents conflict between whites and freedmen.
The Reconstruction Era begins, rebuilding the postwar South and striving for racial justice.

God hasten on the time
When Slavery's blighting crime
And curse shall end;
When man may widely roam
Beneath the arching dome,
And find with man a home,
In man a friend.

“Song for the First of August”
James Madison Bell, 1901

Is race or color crime, that for this cause
You draft against the Negro unjust laws?
Is race or color sin that he should be
For these things treated so outrageously?

Carrie Williams Clifford, 1911
Thomas Nast, It is only a truce to regain power (“playing possum”), 1872. Newspaperman Horace Greeley tries to trick a freedman into shaking hands with two armed white men, one of whom is wearing a hat labeled “Ku Klux Klan.”
Southern legislatures increasingly pass oppressive Black Codes that legally limit acceptable behavior for Black people and prevent their economic advancement. Many Black Codes will remain in place into the 1960s and 70s.

Would you blame the world if it should press
On him a civic crown;
And see me struggling in the depth
Then harshly press me down?

“A Double Standard”
Frances E. W. Harper, 1895

What is blood, or what is birth?
What is black or white?
Or small or great, or rich or poor?
Just so the man's all right?

“Character or Color—Which?”
Carrie Williams Clifford, 1911
“Colored Waiting Room” sign, Greyhound bus station, Rome, Georgia, September 1943. Photograph by Esther Bubley.
The first Jim Crow Laws are enacted, legalizing racial segregation in public accommodations. Segregation would be upheld by the 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, and it would continue to divide America into the 1960s and beyond.

'It seems to me,' said Booker T.,
'It shows a mighty lot of cheek
To study chemistry and Greek
When Mister Charlie needs a hand
To hoe the cotton on his land' [...]

“Booker T. and W.E.B.”
Dudley Randall, 1969

May Joan of Arc and Judith light your path!
The White Hoods cower, fearing that your wrath
Your victory foretells [...]

“Love and Devotion” (For Miss Ida B. Wells)
Victor-Ernest Rillieux, 1945
Ida B. Wells in 1893.
While riding in a whites-only car on a train to Memphis, Ida B. Wells violates a segregation law and is physically dragged out of the car. In response, she writes a newspaper article and successfully sues the railroad, later becoming an anti-lynching activist and investigative journalist.
Negro Expulsion from Railway Car, Philadelphia. Nineteenth-century engraving from The Illustrated London News.
In Plessy v. Ferguson, the US Supreme Court rules that segregation is constitutional if the conditions of each segregated space were “separate but equal.” The case paved the way for decades of legal racial segregation throughout the United States.

Thou knoweth not, poor little boy,
What future holds for thee,
Thy dreams are not extravagant,
And yet, they canst not be.

“To a Little Colored Boy”
Priscilla Jane Thompson, 1900

I had not thought of violets of late,
The wild, shy kind that springs beneath your feet,
In wistful April days, when lovers mate,
And wander through the fields in raptures sweet.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson, 1917