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Free verse: New edition of book enlarges legacy of Black poet Jupiter Hammon

Seventh-graders read their winning essays about Jupiter Hammon, who is believed to be America's first published Black poet. Credit: Yvonne Albinowski

Three hundred and nine years ago, poet Jupiter Hammon was born on Lloyd Neck, the enslaved son of enslaved Black parents. Just this month, 150 people joined together in person and virtually to recognize his literary status as one of America's first published Black authors.

Hammon is also the subject of an updated book, "America's First Black Poet, Jupiter Hammon of Long Island" (Outskirts Press, 2020), edited by Stanley A. Ransom Jr., a former Huntington librarian. New to the book are two poems, discovered in 2011 and 2015, one of which has led researchers to re-evaluate Hammon's feelings about slavery.

"Jupiter Hammon is so significant," said Lauren Brincat, curator at Preservation Long Island, which owns Joseph Lloyd Manor, where Hammon lived for years. "He is widely considered to be the founder of African American literature. We hear his unique perspective as a person of color writing during the Revolutionary War period. He brings a moral complexity to race discussions and is a unique, powerful voice during this foundational moment of history."

Hammon, who wrote six poems and three essays over his lifetime — although scholars note more could be discovered — has been regarded as a religious poet and essayist, Ransom said. "He used his Bible knowledge to let people know he was against slavery," Ransom said. "Most of his poems were religious, and he used his work to put forward some of his ideas."

Stanley A. Ransom Jr. at his home in
The new book edited by Stanley A. Ransom
Page from Newsday, April 18, 1973. Stanley A.

Clockwise, from above: Former Huntington librarian Stanley A. Ransom Jr. pages through a copy of his new edition about Jupiter Hammon. The book includes new details of Hammon's life on Long Island as well as new poems. Newsday wrote about the first edition of Ransom's book in 1973. Photos by Jordan Craig (Ransom and book); Newsday Archive. 

Ransom, now 92 and living in upstate Plattsburgh, added new information about Hammon's family history along with the text of all his known works, including the new poems, to the new edition. He has updated the story with discoveries made since he first chronicled Hammon's story in 1970 in "America's First Negro Poet," which was revised in 1983.

Ransom researched the first edition while director of the Huntington Public Library, where he worked from 1956 to 1974. He was director of the Clinton-Essex-Franklin Library System in Plattsburgh from 1974 until retiring in 1991, then was director of the Plattsburgh Public Library from 2007 to 2012.

A professional storyteller and folk musician who plays the guitar and hammered dulcimer, Ransom included two songs for readers to perform: "Jupiter Hammon's Jig" and "Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley," the latter set to words from Hammon's poem dedicated to Wheatley, another early Black poet.

Religious zeal runs through Hammon's poems and essays. His early, spontaneous efforts became more disciplined and showed balance based on a theme, contributor Vernon Loggins writes in one chapter of Ransom's book, while in several of his poems that cite Scripture he logically develops the thought associated with the citation. By the time Hammon wrote "An Address to the Negroes in the State of New-York" in 1787, Loggins notes, his essays showed strong organization and moral precepts.

It may have been Hammon's conciliatory attitude toward slavery in that 1787 essay, in which he exhorts enslaved people to listen to their masters and work hard, that caused early Black leaders to disregard Hammon's work after his death, Loggins writes. In "An Address to the Negroes," published when he was 76, Hammon also advises fellow slaves to become religious. "Now I acknowledge liberty is a great thing and worth seeking for, though for my own part I do not wish to be free, yet I should be glad if others, especially the young Negroes, were to be free," he wrote.

"It is his poetry, with all its artlessness and crudeness, which makes his name important," Loggins says.

A voice like song

Hammon's poems were written like hymns, with a rhythm that was meant to be spoken aloud, noted poet and actor Malik Work, of St. Albans, Queens, who participated in one of Preservation Long Island's Jupiter Hammon Roundtables. Work also read one of his own poems, "Aria of Pain," when the manor was designated a Literary Landmark on Oct. 17 in recognition of Hammon's writing there while he was enslaved.

"The Bible is one of the only approved avenues that African Americans were allowed to congregate around and profess. It's a safe space," Work said, noting The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. also used Christianity as a way to press the case for equal treatment of Blacks.

Educating a Black man in that period was controversial in itself, Work said. "It makes sense he's going to become very passionate — literacy can get you killed," Work said. "His existence is an act of resistance; he's developed his intellect to that degree."

Verses two and six in Hammon's unpublished "An Essay on Slavery," written in 1786 and discovered in 2011, speak out against slavery:

"Dark and dismal was the Day / When slavery began / All humble thoughts were put away / Then slaves were made by Man.

Come blessed Jesus in thy Love / And hear thy children cry / And send them smiles now from above / And grant them Liberty."

And he asks again in Verse 21:

"When shall we hear the joyful sound / Echo the christian shore / Each humble voice with songs resound / That slavery is no more."

The poem was likely set aside as too politically sensitive to publish by the Lloyd family, who researchers believe helped Hammon get his work out, University of Texas at Arlington Professor Cedrick May and Julie McCown, a grad student, theorized in a 2013 article in the journal Early American Literature.

Then the poem seems to have languished with family papers. McCown discovered it in 2011 as she searched Hillhouse family papers in Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University.

"It was a radical departure from his earlier writing and was a game changer on the way we look at Jupiter Hammon," Brincat said, adding that it was "his sharpest criticism of chattel slavery."

The plaque honoring Jupiter Hammon at the unveiling
Participants unveil the plaque in honor of Jupiter
Stanley A. Ransom Jr. holds open a page

Clockwise from above, a visitor photographs the plaque honoring Jupiter Hammon at the unveiling ceremony at Joseph Lloyd Manor on Oct. 17, 2020. Those at the unveiling included, from left, Melisa Rousseau, Alexandra Parsons Wolfe, Rocco Stanino, Tom Suozzi, Irene Moore and Joan McGee. Stanley A. Ransom Jr. pages through his new book about Jupiter Hammon. Photos by Linda Rosier (landmark event) and Jordan Craig.

Hammon's life

Hammon was born in the Henry Lloyd house on Oct. 17, 1711, and lived with various members of the Lloyd family until he and other family members were manumitted in 1795. He then moved into Huntington to live with relatives on West Shore Road where a historic marker identifies the house.

Hammon died around 1806 and is not known to have a marked grave. Preservation Long Island staff believe he was buried in an unmarked grave on Lloyd Neck; Ransom said he thinks Hammon might have been buried in Huntington behind an Episcopal or African Methodist Episcopal Church.

When Hammon was manumitted, the Lloyd family gave him an orchard, referred to as Jupiter's Orchard, and he lived off that income. When Hammon died, however, Ransom writes, the income stopped, "jobs were scarce and the family was forced to seek public assistance from the Town."

Ransom credits a 2013 article by Charla Bolton and Reginald Metcalf Jr., published in the Long Island History Journal, with providing information about Hammon's parents that he includes in his new book. Hammon's father, Obium, was the son of Tamero and Oyo from Nigeria who came separately to a sugar plantation in Barbados and then to Shelter Island under the Sylvester family. His mother, Rose, accompanied Obium and three other slaves when Henry Lloyd moved from Boston to Lloyd Harbor in 1711.

According to Bolton and Metcalf, Hammon inherited his father's prayer book, indicating his father also could read. Hammon learned to read and write alongside the Lloyd children and was often referred to as "brother Jupiter," Ransom writes. Henry Lloyd supported the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, a British missionary group promoting literacy among enslaved people so they could read the Bible.

2015 poetry find

The three-page poem "Sickness, Death and Funeral," from 1770, is one of Hammon’s earliest known works. It was found by Claire Bellerjeau, historian and director of education at Raynham Hall in Oyster Bay, in 2015 in the archives of the New-York Historical Society. It was written down at Raynham Hall by Phebe Townsend, the youngest of the three sisters of Robert Townsend of the Revolutionary War's Culper Spy Ring.

The poem is a tribute to Anne Hutchinson, who advocated for religious freedom in the American colonies and helped establish Rhode Island.

In the poem's third section, titled "Funeral," Hammon writes:

"The mournful Bell begins to tole / To trace her to the ground / Dear Jesus doth possess her soul / Though we have felt the wound

Dear Hutchinson is dead and Gone / and left a Memorial /

And as a Child that is newborn / The Lord God's holy wil"

Hammon's first published work, "An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penetential Cries," was printed in 1761 as a broadside, a single sheet of paper that could be displayed in a tavern or public area. Located in 1915 by Oscar Wegelin among the holdings of the New-York Historical Society, it focuses on Hammon's religious convictions concerning Christian salvation, a theme he returned to in most of his work.

Stanley A. Ransom, Editor of a new book
Stanley A. Ransom, Editor of a new book
Stanley A. Ransom Jr. with this wife Christina

Clockwise from above, "Jupiter Hammon's Jig" is one of the musical pieces Stanley A. Ransom has included in his new edition about Hammon. Ransom plays the hammered dulcimer. A former Huntington librarian, Ransom lives with his wife, Christina, in upstate Plattsburgh. Photos by Jordan Craig.

Students honor Hammon

"In 1784 he was the featured speaker at the first recorded meeting of the African Society of New York City. At this meeting, Jupiter talked about African Americans living moral lives and following the rules so they can be free.

"[Hammon] explained things that show that a person should never be owned. This was the last thing he wrote before he died." — Christopher Reyes

So goes the essay written by one of three South Huntington students about Black poet Jupiter Hammon.

Recordings of Christopher Reyes, Esmeralda Benitez Fuentes and Ayberk Isik, all 12, reading their winning works were incorporated into an Oct. 17 ceremony recognizing the Joseph Lloyd Manor in Lloyd Harbor as a Literary Landmark. The day also marked Hammon's 309th birthday, as well as Black Poetry Day, which was first suggested in Hammon's honor in 1970.

The students, seventh-graders at Stimson Middle School in Huntington Station, wrote their essays for a project in Susan Cirillo's reading class at Silas Wood Sixth Grade Center. The contest, sponsored by the Town of Huntington's African American Historic Designation Council, has taken place every other year since 2005, according to chair Irene Moore.

High school and junior high students in the town are asked to write an essay or poem to commemorate Hammon's life, she said. Judges look at how students develop ideas as well as their clarity, originality, accuracy and grammar.

Before writing their essays, students studied Hammon's background, explained Esmeralda. "I learned that he got to do a lot of stuff that slaves were not allowed to do," she said, like go to school and learn to write. Ayberk described using Google Maps to see the manor and the waters of Lloyd Harbor across the road from the house as well as taking a virtual tour that included the bench where Hammon sometimes sat to look out at the harbor.

Christopher said he learned that because Hammon went to school with the Lloyd children, "he got a good mindset and he learned to believe in himself. He became the first African American poet."

"People were proud of him; he became an inspiration," Christopher added.

When pandemic nixed a field trip to the Lloyd house, students studied the period, researched Hammon's life and watched a tour of the manor.

They also studied a unit on speaking up, Cirillo said, learning about the large number of rejections author J.K. Rowling received while looking to publish her first "Harry Potter" book, and how Malala Yousafzai worked for girls' education in Pakistan even after she was shot by the Taliban in 2012, when she was 14.

"It set the stage, helped them see that they can do this if they work hard," Cirillo said. "Writing was no longer so scary."

Jupiter Hammon’s life helped show white and Black people can have loving and positive relationships, Cirillo said. "I tell them, you can teach others how we can get along. All three of these kids go home and speak another language. I'm so, so proud of them."

The manor house, owned by Preservation Long Island, joins other Literary Landmark sites, such as the last Baltimore home of Edgar Allan Poe and Boston Public Garden, the setting for Robert McCloskey's children's book "Make Way for Ducklings."

It is the fourth Literary Landmark in Suffolk County — the others include the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site and Interpretive Center in Huntington Station; Spalding Gray's house in Sag Harbor, where the writer and actor wrote 19 monologues; and the College Windmill on the Southampton Campus of Stony Brook University, where Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tennessee Williams lived while writing an experimental play responding to the death of his friend, painter Jackson Pollock. There are no Literary Landmark sites in Nassau.

The dedication ceremony was part of Preservation Long Island’s Jupiter Hammon Project, an effort to develop a more equitable interpretation of the 18th century house museum by celebrating Hammon's contributions to American history and literature. The Literary Landmarks program is part of United for Libraries, a division of the American Library Association. — Kay Blough

The Jupiter Hammon Project

Joseph Lloyd Manor, 1 Lloyd Lane, Lloyd Harbor, where Jupiter Hammon lived and wrote many of his works, is closed for the season. You can find information about its Jupiter Hammon Project at the Preservation Long Island website, preservationlongisland.org/joseph-lloyd-manor, under the “Education” dropdown menu.

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