When it comes to seminal moments in American literature, particularly in an African American context, Phillis Wheatley’s name is prominently evoked. But several years before Wheatley began her remarkable publishing career, which found resonance in England, Lucy Terry composed what is widely considered the oldest known work of literature by a Black American.
Terry, born in Africa in 1733, was abducted as a child and sold into slavery. For the first five years of her life she lived in Rhode Island and was later sold to Ebenezer Wells, who had her baptized.
If the numbers are correct, she composed “Bars Fight,” her famous ballad about a Native American attack on settlers in 1746, when she was 13 years old. There has been a lot of discussion about Terry’s work being older than the works of Wheatley, much of it centered on who was published first and not who composed first. Even so, both were extraordinary writers, especially given the often difficult circumstances of their lives in bondage.
Not much is known of Terry’s early years, but according to several accounts, she was quite prolific and left behind a large trove of writings that are still being pursued by scholars and researchers. In 1756, she married Abijah Prince, a free Black man from Curaçao, who purchased her freedom. They settled in Guilford, Vermont, and raised six children. One of them, Cesar, fought in the Revolutionary War.
Her poem “Bars Fight” (excerpt below) is a recounting of the raid and Terry cites several of the people involved in the incident. Bars was the colonial term for meadow, and the poem was preserved for many years orally before it was finally published in 1855.
In the future, we may find her personal account of what happened to her and her husband at the hands of neighbors who took exception to their presence, attacked them and destroyed much of their property. They filed several successful lawsuits against the aggressors, but this did not end the ongoing feud. In 1785, with the assistance of acclaimed jurist Samuel Knight, Terry was successful against her adversaries who the judge decided was “greatly oppressing” her and her husband.
But this was not the end of the family’s distress. Soon after the decision, a mob led by her neighbor invaded the Princes’ property, beat a Black farmhand to death, burned crops and generally left the place devastated. While many of those involved in the attack were later convicted, the leader of the mob, a Mr. Noyes, was not. He later bailed out his henchmen and served as a state legislator in Vermont for more than 10 years.
In 1803, Terry was once again in court, this time on behalf of her sons, defending them against false land claims. The claim was successful and she was awarded $200. To this end, she was the first woman to argue before the high court, defeating two of the top lawyers, including one who would later become the chief justice. Three years later, she received an additional $200 of land to provide for her family. These successes brought her great respect and acclaim in the region.
All of this occurred after her husband’s death in 1794, which left her to conduct the various proceedings without his assistance. By this time, she lived in Sunderland, Vermont, and made annual trips by horseback to visit his gravesite. She died in 1821, but is still remembered in the community for her legal skills and devotion to family.
There are no verifiable images of her, but several artists have conceived what they believe is her countenance.
Here is part of Lucy Terry’s famous poem.
“August ‘twas the twenty-fifth,
Seventeen hundred forty-six;
The Indians did in ambush lay,
Some very valiant men to slay,
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 and pain.
Simeon Amsden they found dead,
Not many rods distant from his head.”