Lucy Terry Prince, poet and abolitionist, is the author of the oldest known work of literature by an African American. Other accomplishments include successfully arguing a case before the Supreme Court.
Lucy Terry was born in Africa around 1724 (some celebrate her birthday on October 23, 1730), and taken when she was only an infant to become a slave. During the period when Lucy arrived, the rum-slave-molasses traffic from Newport or Bristol to Africa and the West Indies was in its early development. Around 1730, slave traders sold her in Rhode Island, primary locale for colonial American slave trade.
It is highly likely that Lucy was taken from Rhode Island to Enfield, Connecticut, which would explain why she was known as Lucy Terry. Since most blacks weren't named until they were purchased and transported to their owners, Lucy probably came to be called Terry through an association with Samuel Terry, one of the early settlers and founders of Enfield.
It is uncertain how Lucy became the property of Deerfield, Massachusetts, resident Ebenezer Wells. Wells had purchased a house and barn on Deerfield's principal street in 1717, and in 1720 married Abigail Barnard. He was prominent in town affairs, held various offices, and between 1747 and 1752 was licensed as "Innholder, taverner, and common victualler of strong liquor by retail." By 1730, he was evidently well off, and owner of two slaves: Cesar, about whom little is known, and Lucy.
Wells had Lucy baptized in the Puritan church in Deerfield around 1735 during the Great Awakening and he allowed her to become a full member of the church around 1744 when she reached the age of fourteen. Slaves were most frequently called servants, and appear to have enjoyed certain freedoms, among them at least a degree of free will in the matter of religion. No fewer than five slaves were baptized during the revival known as the Great Awakening.
On August 25, 1746, when Lucy Terry was 22, two neighboring white families were killed in an Indian attack in a section of Deerfield that was called the Bars, a colonial term for meadows. She later wrote a thirty-line ballad about the attack called Bars Fight, which describes the violent incident between the settlers and Native Americans.
Lucy Terry Prince composed poetry that was recited or sung, as was common in colonial times. Because most of her works were not formally published, only the poem, Bars Fight, remains – a Deerfield resident, Harriet Hitchcock, recorded it from memory after Lucy Terry Prince's death. The first known printed version of this poem came out in a lecture given in 1819. It was later published in a book of western Massachusetts history, Josiah Holland's History of Western Massachusetts, in 1855.
Sometime about 1750, a new black presence made itself known in Deerfield. Abijah Prince must have captured the attention of Deerfield's slave population because of his free status. Abijah, commonly known as Bijah, was a former servant to Reverend Benjamin Doolittle of nearby Northfield, Massachusetts. When Doolittle died he freed Bijah and gave him some land.
Lucy Terry remained with the Wells family until 1756, when she married Abijah Prince. He was about fifty years of age, and she some twenty years his junior.
By law, Lucy and her children should have remained slaves, since the offspring of slaves followed in the condition of the mother. It is thought Prince purchased her freedom, regardless, neither Lucy nor her children were ever slaves again. Bijah and Lucy had six children between 1757 and 1769, and each of them was baptized shortly after birth by Parson Jonathan Ashley. At least one of their sons, Cesar, is known to have fought in the Revolutionary War.
Lucy, who then called herself Luce Bijah, made her home a gathering place for slaves and freedmen of the community – a place where they could listen to tales and songs of old Africa. She was particularly popular with young people, who gathered around her kitchen at night to hear her recitations, music and poetry on the order of an adult literary circle. Luce and Bijah were the only known freed slaves in 18th century Deerfield.
Bijah Prince was industrious and carried accounts with several individuals and merchants of Deerfield. He was employed by Deerfield's minister, Jonathan Ashley, cutting brush and wood, mowing, and sugaring between February 1756 and November 1759.
In the 1760s, the Prince family moved to Guilford, Vermont, but return to Deerfield intermittently. Around 1780, the Princes returned to their homestead in Guilford, but ran into trouble. Their neighbors, the Noyes, for reasons undetermined, burned Bijah's fences and hayricks. The harassment continued until the Princes appealed to the Governor's Council.
Lucy was well known for her speaking ability and she used her skills a number of times in defense of her family's rights and property. The Princes were judged "much injured." The Governor recommended to the Selectmen of Guilford to "take some effectual measures to protect the said Abijah, Lucy, and family."
Desiring a liberal education for one of her sons, Lucy applied at Williams College. Her son was rejected on account of his race. . She argued unsuccessfully before the trustees of Williams College for the admission of one of her sons, skillfully citing scripture and law "in an earnest and eloquent speech of three hours."
Later, when a Colonel Eli Bronson attempted to steal land owned by the Princes, the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. Lucy argued against two of the leading lawyers in the state, one of whom later became chief justice of Vermont – and she won. Samuel Chase, the presiding justice of the Court, said that her argument was better than he'd heard from any Vermont lawyer.
Bijah and Lucy probably remained living on the Guilford property, and Bijah Prince died there in 1794, at the age of 88. Lucy remained in Guilford until about 1808, when she returned to Sunderland, Vermont, probably making her final home with her eldest son, Caesar, a farmer reported in the federal census for Sunderland in 1820 and 1830.
As long as she lived, Lucy Terry Prince made an annual pilgrimage over the Green Mountains on horseback to visit Bijah's grave. Lucy was blind for several years previous to her death.
Lucy Terry Prince died at Sunderland, Vermont, on July 11, 1821, at 97 years of age. The Vermont Gazette of Bennington published a long obituary, reprinted in part by The Franklin Herald of Greenfield, Massachusetts, and perhaps other newspapers.
Lucy Terry Prince, America's first black poet, champion of justice, and loyal wife and mother, has partially emerged from obscurity. Although we now know more about her than most contemporary African Americans, Lucy still remains somewhat in the shadows and will doubtless always be the subject of myth and folklore. Historians do believe that Lucy Terry was literate considering her legal battles in her later years after her marriage to Abijah Prince in 1756. She was a remarkable woman whose many accomplishments included successfully arguing a case before the Supreme Court.
Compiled from http://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2008/09/lucy-terry-prince.html and http://www.examiner.com/literature-in-jackson/african-american-history-month-part-four-lucy-terry-prince.
The Bars Fight
By Lucy Terry, 1746
August, 'twas the twenty-fifth,
Seventeen hundred forty-six,
The Indians did in ambush lay,
Some very valiant men to slay.
' Twas nigh unto Sam Dickinson's mill,
The Indians there five men did kill.
The names of whom I'll not leave out,
Samuel Allen like a hero foute,
And though he was so brave and bold,
His face no more shall we behold.
Eleazer Hawks was killed outright,
Before he had time to fight,
Before he did the Indians see,
Was shot and killed immediately.
Oliver Amsden he was slain,
Which caused his friends much grief pain.
Simeon Amsden they found dead
Not many rods from Oliver's head.
Adonijah Gillett, we do hear,
Did lose his life which was so dear,
John Sadler fled across the water,
And thus escaped the dreadful slaughter.
Eunice Allen see the Indians comeing
And hoped to save herself by running;
And had not her petticoats stopt her,
The awful creatures had not cotched her,
Nor tommyhawked her on the head,
And left her on the ground for dead.
Young Samuel Allen, Oh! lack-a-day!
Was taken and carried to Canada.