October 17: The Enslaved Man Who Became America’s First Published African-American Writer


Jupiter Hammon  was born into slavery today 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 when he wasn’t working as a farm hand and clerk, dabbled in writing poetry, sermons, and meditations. Hammon penned an 88-line poem titled “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penetential Cries,” on Christmas Day, 1760, which 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 Hammon’s poem 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 moved there during the Revolutionary War when the British occupation of Long Island threatened the well-being of their family and property. While he was 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