Photo often mislabeled as George Moses Horton shows importance of accurate research

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Four years ago, University Archivist Nicholas Graham noticed a photo that was mislabeled on a flyer. It was a photo of abolitionist and physician Martin Robison Delany, but someone had labeled it as poet George Moses Horton, the namesake of Horton Residence Hall. 

Graham said the photo is still being inaccurately used today. This common mistake misrepresents the legacies of both Horton and Delaney and exemplifies the importance of thorough and accurate research, Graham said.

George Moses Horton was born around 1798 in Northampton County. When he was an infant, his slave owner moved him and his family to Chatham County, but he traveled to Chapel Hill regularly to sell goods that his farm produced, Graham said.

At the time, UNC was just emerging as a school. 

“There were less than 100 students and maybe a dozen faculty,” Sarah Carrier, a North Carolina research and instructional librarian, said.

Graham said Horton would interact with the students — and once they realized that he could compose wonderful acrostic poems, they started paying him for them. 

He had not yet learned how to write, so Horton would orally share poems with the students, eventually earning him the name “the Black Bard,” Carrier said.

Graham said Horton saved up money to buy his own freedom, but his owner refused the money and kept him in captivity. At one point, he wrote to the then-president of UNC, asking that he purchase him away from his enslaver. The University president refused the request.

Because Horton was enslaved, his life and literary work were undervalued, Graham said. At the time, only the rich and influential could afford to have their photos taken. Horton was not one of those people, so there are no known photos of him.

Delany — the subject of the photo often shown as Horton’s likeness — is often known as a founder of Black nationalism. He was the first African American field officer in the U.S. Army and worked for the Freedman’s Bureau after the Civil War. 

Delany founded «The Mystery,» one of the earliest African American newspapers, and produced «The North Star» with Frederick Douglass. He briefly attended Harvard Medical School in 1850 but was dismissed after three weeks due to petitions from white students.

Although Horton and Delany were contemporaries, there is no known connection between the two, Graham said.

“It is important to talk about people such as George Moses Horton — who aren’t respected in their lifetimes — to tell their stories with accuracy and the respect they deserve,” he said.

Even though people are using the photo with the intent of honoring Horton, it ultimately does both him and Delany a disservice, Carrier said.

“Horton is a very important example, exercise, in critical thinking and information literacy,» Carrier said. «We want students to not only access our collections, but also learn to do research and assess the facts of the matter to decide if the source is even appropriate, and understand notions of bias.»

Eliza Richards, a professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, is compiling, transcribing and annotating all of Horton’s known works for UNC Press. 

She said many of these works are held in Wilson Library Collections. The project’s working title is “The Collected Writings of George Moses Horton: A Critical Edition.”

This project is challenging, Richards said, as Horton’s work is scattered across the personal collections of the people who commissioned him and because most of his experiences are undocumented. 

With the help of her students who will be credited for their contributions, Richards said she plans to complete the edition in December.

Graham, Carrier and Richards said fact verification is incredibly important in the world of academia.

When researching, Richards said that students should be suspicious.

“The question is what is the quality of this information, and how do you assess the quality of this information?” she said.

When discussing historical figures, they said it is important to make sure that the information is accurate.

“We should be more active in recognizing this remarkable person — other remarkable people,» Richards said. «It’s a very teachable history and a learning experience for everybody.»

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