October 17: Jupiter Hammon, First Published African-American Writer


Jupiter Hammon, an enslaved man, poet, and devout Christian who became the first published African-American writer, was born on this day in 1711 on the Lloyd family estate on Long Island.   While little is known about the finer details of Hammon’s life, as a boy, young Jupiter was educated alongside the Lloyd family’s children and was encouraged to read, write, and study the Bible — a highly unusual arrangement for the time.  He became a devout Christian and dabbled in writing poetry, sermons, and meditations when he wasn’t working as a farmhand and clerk.  Hammon penned an 88-line poem titled “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penetential Cries,” on Christmas Day, 1760, and was published as a single-page broadside in Hartford, Connecticut in early 1761.  The exact circumstances surrounding the publication of Hammon’s poem are unknown, but the humble broadside made history by virtue of becoming the first published literary work by an African-American in (what is now) the United States.

An original copy of Jupiter Hammon’s 1761 broadside.

The Lloyd family obviously had some connection with Hartford, as they later moved there during the Revolutionary War after the British occupation of Long Island threatened the well-being of their family and property.  While living in Hartford, several additional works by Hammon were published, including essays about New Testament parables and “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatly” — a poetic dialogue in which the devout Hammon exhorted the famous Boston-area poetess to rededicate herself to Christ.  Later in life, Hammon wrote a widely-circulated essay arguing for gradual emancipation of slavery which, along with his spiritual poems and essays, had a major, long-lasting influence on early American black theology and anti-slavery literature.  Hammon died sometime around 1805 – 1806, having never experienced life outside of slavery.  While his death was never recorded, his works live on in the annals of formative early American and African-American literature.

Further Reading

Jupiter Hammon, “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries,” University of Virginia Library

Hartford Publishes the First Literary Work by an African-American,” connecticuthistory.org