On fertile borders, near the stream,
Now gaze with pleasure and delight;
See loaded vines with melons teem—
’Tis paradise to human sight.
Declared the historic poet laureate of Chatham County, Horton was born a slave on William Horton's tobacco plantation in 1798. He taught himself to read, though it was forbidden for slaves, and composed and performed poetry about the rural landscape, Civil War politics, and his harsh experiences under slavery. Horton holds the distinction of being the first African American to publish a book, and the only to publish while living in slavery.
Horton’s local popularity soared during his lifetime. Working at a farmer’s market in nearby Chapel Hill on weekends, he wrote verses and sold them individually, the most popular of which were love poems swept up by college students from the University of North Carolina seeking the perfect gift for their sweethearts. He gained the attention of the university's president, Joseph Caldwell, and was patronized by Caroline Lee Whiting Hentz, the wife of a professor of modern languages, who helped publish his work in the local newspaper.
His first book, The Hope of Liberty, was published in 1829 with the help of area residents. He hoped that selling his book would earn him enough money to purchase his freedom. Unfortunately, his attempts were denied on every occasion, despite the support of the governor of North Carolina. In 1865, he walked north with Union soldiers to freedom.
To commemorate his life and work, the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, as part of its Historical Marker Program, placed a marker for Horton at the intersection of U.S. 15-501 and S.R. 1700, between Chapel Hill and Pittsboro, near the plantation on which he lived.
The Chatham County middle school is named for the poet and is committed to a broad literary arts curriculum. In 2000, the Horton Jubilee celebrated the 200th anniversary of his birth with readings and writing workshops, storytelling performances, and sidewalk artists. A dedicated group of students, teachers, and other volunteers constructed the Path to Freedom on school grounds, a mosaic made up of twelve stepping stones, each depicting an image from Horton’s poem "On Summer."