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Jupiter Hammon's poetry offers rare glimpse into life of an enslaved person on Long Island

Preservation Long Island project highlights Jupiter Hammon's poetry on slavery
Preservation Long Island project highlights Jupiter Hammon's poetry on slavery 04:36

LLOYD NECK, N.Y. -- The horrors of slavery are unimaginable.

One enslaved man on Long Island in the 18th century gave us a rare glimpse into his views on slavery and freedom in poetry.

CBS New York's Carolyn Gusoff introduces us to Jupiter Hammon, the first published Black American poet.

Perched high on Long Island's North Shore is a 260-year-old estate. The Joseph Lloyd Manor was built upon a large plantation in what's now Lloyd Neck. The Lloyd family of merchants lived in luxury.

"A lot of the architectural features in this room are really intended for the Lloyds to show off their wealth," said Andrew Tharler, education director of Preservation Long Island.

But in the back of the house, out of view, enslaved people slept.

"The ceiling is much shorter in this room. It's much darker," Tharler said. "Enslaved people could be hidden, but at the same time, they were really everywhere."

Among the dozen enslaved people who served the Lloyds, one of them was doing what is hard to imagine. Jupiter Hammon, born into bondage in 1711, was writing poetry.

In one poem, he wrote:

Dark and dismal was the day,

When slavery began

All humble thoughts were put away

Then slaves were made by man

Hammon learned to read and write because in New York, where 1 in 5 people were enslaved, literacy was not banned; it was permitted to read the Bible.

"What he did get out of it was that slavery was a sin, but it was a sin that had to be endured ... Later on, his works started to really emphasize the brutality of slavery," Preservation Long Island board member Melissa Chioma Rousseau said.

"He is a founder of African-American literature. He is writing about liberty, slavery before, during and after the American Revolution," said Lauren Brincat, a curator with Preservation Long Island.

The Lloyds published his religious writings but not his "Essay on Slavery," a pointed indictment written in his own hand, providing the rare perspective of a person viewed as property:

Although we are in slavery

Bound by the yoke of man

We must always have a single eye

And do the best we can

"And it says 'written by Jupiter Hammon.' He is proclaiming his identity, his humanity, despite living within a system that essentially functioned to deny him personhood," Brincat said.

Poet Malik Work breathed life into Hammon's words.

"His enslavers are the only reason why he became published, so he is walking a very thin rope to indict slavery, but also need his enslavers to pass this poetry on to the rest of the world. So it's impressive to see his subtlety," Work said.

In his address to enslaved New Yorkers, he says, "If we should ever get to heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being Black or for being slaves."

"Slavery is a sin not created by God but created by man," Brincat said.

For years, visitors to the historical site heard only about the powerful Lloyd family.

"There was really no mention. It was sort of, 'This is where the slaves were ... and let's go to the next room,'" Chioma Rousseau said.

Hammon's words now speak to visitors. The Jupiter Hammon Project, launched by Preservation Long Island with years of community input, tells the story of generations of people forced into bondage.

"To make sure that enslaved voices, that were voices that were silenced, that their voices can now be heard," Chioma Rousseau said.

"I don't doubt that he knew that 250 years later, we'd be reading his thoughts ... A testament to the power of the human spirit," Work said.

Hammon's death was as exceptional as his life; he lived to age 90 at a time life expectancy for enslaved people was under 50. He penned six poems and three essays, and more could still be found.

Hammon was one of only two enslaved African American to have their writings published in the 18th century. The other was Phyllis Wheatley, whose writings are more well-known.

You can watch our special, "Black History is American History," Thursday at 5:30 p.m.

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