A researcher formerly from Oyster Bay has discovered what is believed to be only the sixth known poem by Jupiter Hammon, a slave from Lloyd Harbor who was the first black writer to be published in America.
Claire Bellerjeau, who has spent many years researching the Townsend family and their slaves who lived at Raynham Hall in Oyster Bay, found the poem in November when she was examining family papers housed at the New-York Historical Society in Manhattan.
But it was only last month that she realized the importance of what she had uncovered.
The untitled three-page poem is a tribute to Anne Hutchinson, who advocated for civil liberty and religious freedom in the American colonies.
"The poem seems to have been hiding in plain sight for decades," Bellerjeau said. "Over the years, researchers have pored over this collection of documents, many looking for insights into Robert Townsend's work as a spy" with George Washington's Long Island-based Culper Spy Ring during the American Revolution.
"This is a really, really important literary and historical find," said Cedrick May, professor of African-American literature at Texas Christian University, who has been researching Hammon since 2001 and discovered his fifth known poem four years ago. "So far, from what I've seen, it looks pretty authentic." He plans to come to New York to examine the document.
"The prospect of adding yet another poem to Hammon's historically groundbreaking oeuvre, already well-represented in New-York Historical's holdings, is an enticing one for the scholarly community," said Edward O'Reilly, the society's head of manuscripts. "New-York Historical is excited to provide the opportunity for future scholarly inquiry into the poem."
The making of a poet
Hammon, born in 1711, was a poet and essayist owned by Henry Lloyd, proprietor of the Manor of Queens Village in what is now the Village of Lloyd Harbor, and passed down to Joseph Lloyd and then John Lloyd. He had been educated alongside the Lloyd children, and his earliest known work was published in 1761. The newly discovered untitled piece from 1770 would be his second-earliest poem. He died sometime between 1790 and 1806.
Bellerjeau, who now lives in Madison, Connecticut, said the poem was written down by Phebe Townsend, youngest of Robert Townsend's three sisters. The Townsends interacted with the Lloyds, and Hammon was known to have spent time in Oyster Bay, she said.
At the end of the poem, it states: "Composed by Jupiter Hammon, A Negro Belonging to Mr Joseph Lloyd of Queens Village on Long Island. August the 10th 1770."
"This attribution is almost identical to those found on all other known poems by Hammon," Bellerjeau said. "And the final stanza of this poem matches almost exactly his other final stanzas."
In her initial visit to the historical society in November, Bellerjeau photographed some documents for later study. One turned out to be the third and final page of the poem. "I took a picture of it because I knew Jupiter Hammon was important to the story of slavery on Long Island," she said.
Bellerjeau didn't get around to looking at the image again until Valentine's Day. Since she only had the last page, she wanted to see a full transcription. "So I started Googling lines from the poem," she said. When the search did not find the lines in any of Hammon's five known poems, "I realized I had something extremely important."
An eye-opening realization
When Bellerjeau returned to the historical society, "one of the most thrilling moments of my life was when I realized . . . there were two more pages of writing," she said. "My excitement only grew when I began to analyze the meaning."
The work was a tribute to Hutchinson, who co-founded Rhode Island after she was banished from the Massachusetts Colony in 1638 for challenging male church leaders.
"Hutchinson's religious beliefs concerning salvation through faith are themes that run through the body of Hammon's work," Bellerjeau said. "That was something his master could not take away from him."
Some scholars have criticized Hammon for his apparent acceptance of the institution of slavery in his published poems, in which he writes mostly about religious themes. But in "An Essay on Slavery," the unpublished poem discovered by May and one of his graduate students at Yale University in 2011, "he speaks directly about slavery being a sinful thing, which is quite a departure," May said.
"He's never written anything like that before," May said of the poem lauding Hutchinson. "It's important for that reason, and it's important because it gives us more information about his thoughts on history and events close to his time."
Alexandra Wolfe, director of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, which owns the Henry Lloyd House in Lloyd Harbor where Hammond lived, said "this is fantastic news. It seems there's an opportunity to tell more of his story."