Lucy Terry Prince
Lucy Terry Prince was a renowned 18th-century orator who is also the first known African-American poet.
Poet Lucy Terry Prince was born in West Africa in the early half of the 18th century. Captured by slave traders when she was a young girl, she was brought to America and eventually became a part of the Wells household in Deerfield, Massachusetts. In 1746, Prince composed the poem "Bars Fight," the earliest known piece of literature created by an African American. Upon marrying, Prince achieved her freedom and had six children. Renowned for her oration, she died in Vermont in 1821.
Background and Early Life
Future poet Lucy Terry Prince was born in West Africa. The exact date of her birth is unknown, though it is thought she might have been born as early as the mid-1720s. Historical records on Prince’s life are highly limited and thus details of her history have been deduced from scholarly research and conjecture.
Prince was captured at a very young age by slave traders and brought to Rhode Island. There she was believed to have been initially purchased by Samuel Terry, who lived in Enfield, Connecticut. When Terry died in 1730, she was eventually sent to live with Ebenezer Wells of Deerfield, Massachusetts. With the Wells family, the intelligent and popular Prince became a devout Christian. She was baptized and became a full-time church member by her teen years. History also points to her learning how to read during her time with the Wells.
Freedom and Family
Lucy remained with the household until 1756, when she married Abijah Prince, a free black man. Lucy was promptly emancipated as well, though it's not certain if her new husband purchased her freedom from the Wells or if the family simply relinquished her from servitude.
In her new life, Lucy Terry Prince settled with her husband in Guilford, Vermont, eventually having six children. Two of the Prince progeny, Cesar and Festus, are believed to have fought in the Revolutionary War. Prince had also unsuccessfully petitioned for at least one of her children to attend Williams College, giving a speech to representatives that was said to have lasted for three hours.
First Known African-American Poet
A gifted wordsmith and captivating storyteller, Prince used her skills to achieve a major milestone. Her work "Bars Fight" (1746), which tells the story of a white settlers killed in an attack by Native Americans in Deerfield, is the earliest known poem ever created by an African American. After being shared orally for more than a century, the work was published for the first time in 1855 in Josiah G. Holland’s History of Western Massachusetts.
After the Princes moved to Guilford, a neighboring family had willfully damaged parts of their property. In 1785 the couple were able to successfully petition the Vermont governor and his affiliated council for protection.
In addition, some sources allege that Prince argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in her family's case against the false land claims of Colonel Eli Bronson in Sunderland, Vermont. The Prince family was said to have emerged victorious, but hundreds of years later a judicial library representative stated that there’s no legal record of Prince ever arguing a case before the land’s highest bench. Instead, in the mid-1790s she might have been involved in a lower court ruling officiated by Samuel Chase, a judge who reportedly stated that Prince’s eloquence surpassed that of lawyers.
Lucy and Abijah eventually returned to Guilford. Following her husband's death in 1794, Prince moved back to Sunderland, where she died in 1821.
A book inspired by the poet’s life was released in 1973—Black Woman: A Fictionalized Biography of Lucy Terry Prince, by Bernard and Jonathan Katz. Decades later, another title on her and her husband’s journey was published—Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend (2008), by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina.