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Early African-American Poets

Civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell pronounced that Paul Laurence Dunbar was “the poet laureate of the Negro race,” at the height of his fame as a critically acclaimed poet. Dunbar explored themes such as identity, love, heritage and injustice in his poems, which were all published during the Jim Crow Era.

Dunbar, however, was not the first African-American poet.

The African-American literary canon actually began during colonial America.

The earliest known African-American to recite a poem was a 16-year-old named Lucy Terry Prince in 1746. Although her poem was not published for another 109 years, more poets followed.

When Lucy Terry Prince died in 1821, her obituary read, “the fluency of her speech captivated all around her.”  Throughout Prince’s life, she used the power of her voice to retell stories and defend the rights of her family and their property.

In 1746, Prince witnessed two white families attacked by Native Americans. The fight took place in Deerfield, Mass. Known as “The Bars.” This poem is considered the earliest poem by an African-American. It was told orally until it was published in 1855 by Josiah Gilbert Holland in History of Western Massachusetts. 

Born in Africa, Prince was stolen and sold into slavery in Massachusetts to Ebenezer Wells. She was named Lucy Terry.  Prince was baptized during the Great Awakening and at the age of 20, she was considered a Christian.

Ten years after Prince recited Bars Fight, she married her husband, Abijah Prince. A wealthy and free African-American man, he purchased Prince’s freedom, and the couple moved to Vermont where they had six children. 

Considered one of the founders of African-American literature, Jupiter Hammon was a poet who would become the first African-American to publish his work in the United States.

Hammon was born enslaved in 1711. Although never freed, Hammon was taught to read and write. In 1760, Hammon published his first poem, “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries” in 1761. Throughout Hammons life, he

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