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Jupiter Hammon, the Father of African American Poetry

While Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) has been celebrated as America’s first published African-American poet, a slave named Jupiter Hammon may have been published before her.

Jupiter Hammon’s first published work, an 88-line broadside, came out in Hartford, Connecticut in 1760—when Phillis was only 7 years old and 10 years before her first broadside publication, entitled “Elegy on the Death of Whitefield.”

Born a slave on the Henry Lloyd Manor in Lloyd Neck, Long Island (New York), Hammon (October 7, 1711 - ca. 1790) was educated at home and became a trusted bookkeeper for the mercantile family, whose commercial interests spread from Boston to the West Indies, and from Connecticut to London. He was also a preacher among fellow slaves.

Hammons first poem, “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries,” was published on December 25, 1760. His essay, “A Winter Piece,” was published the following year, and Hammon also dedicated a poem to Phillis Wheatly in 1778. Other works have been discovered recently, including verses celebrating Prince William Henrys visit to the Lloyd Manor House in 1782, a year before the British were defeated in the American Revolution.

While Hammon published different poems and essays throughout his lifetime, his most famous work was published at the age of 76.

Having worked as a farmhand, a servant, a clerk and an artisan, the slave-poet drew upon his own experiences to inspire fellow slaves in a 1786 address to the Negroes of the State of New York. And today, his famous speech has established him as an early champion for equality and freedom, as well as the father of African-American poetry: If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves. 

The original copy of Jupiter Hammon’s 1760 poem can be found in the New York State Historical Society. A full account of his life and work, including Hammons biography, his collected poems and a critical analysis of his writing, can be found in America’s First Negro Poet:

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