University of Texas at Arlington professor, graduate student discover poem written by 18th century slave from New York

ARLINGTON, Texas -- A University of Texas at Arlington English professor and his doctoral student have discovered a never-before published, handwritten manuscript by Jupiter Hammon, an 18th century slave from Long Island, N.Y., who many scholars consider one of the founders of early African-American literature.

The poem is remarkable because it represents a major shift in the ideology that Hammon publicly advocated during his lifetime and perhaps internal conflict over whether slavery was “God’s will” or a “dark and dismal,” manmade state.

Cedrick May, an associate English professor, and student Julie McCown made the discovery last fall in the Manuscripts and Archives at Yale University Library in New Haven, Conn. Their research is the focus of an article to be published in the June 2013 edition of the journal Early American Literature along with the full text of Hammon’s “An Essay on Slavery.”

“This is an important discovery for three reasons,” said Sandra Gustafson, editor of Early American Literature. “It expands the very small number of known works by enslaved African Americans written in the 18th century. The poem voices a strong, direct critique of slavery. And it shows Hammon’s ongoing poetic dialogue with Phillis Wheatley on matters of Christian faith and social justice.”

Beth Wright, dean of the UT Arlington College of Liberal Arts, said the discovery “enables us to recover in some measure the voices of people who had been silenced.”

“As an art historian myself, I can attest to how exciting and moving it is to be able to touch the past in this way. I know that many people will be enlightened by this discovery,” Wright said.

Hammon was born in 1711 and lived to serve four generations of the prominent Lloyd family of Queens Village on Long Island. He learned to read and write along with the Lloyd children, eventually penning poems that appeared in print as far back as 1760.

“The last edition of his known works was put out in the 1980s, and so, his writings have been out of print for the last 30 years,” May said. Other experts on Hammon’s work believed that other writings of his existed, but they didn’t know where any of these manuscripts were until now.  

That newly discovered poem, which Hammon called “An Essay on Slavery,” was written in 1786. In it, he wrote: “Dark and dismal was the Day/ when slavery began/ All humble thoughts were put away/ Then slaves were made by Man.”

The poem had a much more anti-slavery tone than “An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York,” the prose piece he wrote in 1787. The address was published in New York newspapers of the day and expressed the sentiments of a very old slave who believed that servitude was God’s will.

At the time, Hammon, nearly 80 and a devout Christian, had spent a lifetime enslaved.

In that piece, he wrote: “If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves.”

May believes that Hammon wrote both the poem and essay around the same time, but that “An Essay on Slavery” was likely considered too anti-slavery and thus, was never made public.

The journey to finding the rare handwritten manuscript began last fall with a class assignment that eventually took McCown from UT Arlington to the Yale University Library.

McCown was enrolled in May’s English 6351 course, Electronic Text Design and Web Publishing. May wanted his students to learn to do archival research of early American materials, transcribe the materials and turn them into electronic text that could be distributed over the Internet so that other scholars and students could use it.

McCown, who was to research “An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York,” grew hopeful when she learned that a copy of her assigned poem was, at one point, in the New York Public Library.

After weeks of phone calls and emails, one librarian offered a hint of light, McCown said.

“She said ‘we don’t have what you’re looking for, but the Yale Finding Aide says there’s a poem by Jupiter Hammon from 1786,’ and she provided a link.”

That link led to a list of some 80 boxes worth of documents that had been donated to the Yale Library in the early 1940s. The individual was a descendant of the Hillhouse family, which married into the Lloyd family and somehow came to own the documents.

May and McCown realized the limits of studying stanzas over facsimiles and through emails, so they traveled to Connecticut to personally examine and authenticate the document. They believe that those who catalogued the document years ago mistakenly thought it was a Hammon poem that was already known.

May and McCown also worked with the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities in authenticating the new poem. They spent time analyzing photographs, looking at aspects such as whether the expensive paper was the quality that Hammon would have had access to during his time, even the type of ink that was used. They also compared the poem to other documents that showed Hammon’s handwriting and studied details about the other slaves who lived with him at the Lloyd and Hillhouse homes.

May believes the revelation will be a game changer in the field of early American literature. “Initially, I thought this was either an incredibly elaborate hoax or a title put on something that Hammon had written earlier. But that was not the case,” said May, who is working on a book about Hammon.

The important literary find is representative of research excellence at The University of Texas at Arlington, a comprehensive institution of more than 33,800 students and more than 2,200 faculty members in the heart of North Texas. Visit to learn more.