Lucy Terry Prince, often credited as simply Lucy Terry, (c. 1730–1821) was brought to Rhode Island as a slave from Africa. Her future husband purchased her freedom before their marriage in 1756. She composed a ballad, "Bars Fight," about a 1746 incident. It was preserved orally until being published in 1855. It is considered the oldest known work of literature by an African American.
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Terry was stolen from Africa and sold into slavery in Rhode Island as an infant. She spent time in Rhode Island, up until the age of five. At the age of five she was sold to and later owned by Ebenezer Wells of Deerfield, Massachusetts, who allowed her to be baptized into the Christian faith at about five years of age during the Great Awakening.
A successful free black man named Abijah Prince from Curacao purchased her freedom and married her in 1756. They were married by a justice of the peace Ephraim Williams, he was later the founder of Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts In 1764, the Princes settled in Guilford, Vermont, where all six of their children were born. Their names were Tatnai, Cesar, Drucilla, Durexa, Abijah, Jr and Festus. Cesar fought in the Revolutionary War.
Her work, "Bars Fight", is a ballad about attack upon two white families by Native Americans on August 25, 1746. The attack occurred in an area of Deerfield called "The Bars", which was a colonial term for a meadow. The poem was preserved orally until it was finally published in 1855. This poem was the earliest existing poem of an African-American, and is the only known work of hers. When finally published in 1855, it was published in Josiah Gilbert Holland's History of Western Massachusetts.
In 1785, when a neighboring white family threatened the Princes, they appealed to the governor and his Council for protection. The Council ordered Guilford's selectmen to defend them.
A persuasive orator, Prince successfully negotiated a land case before the Supreme Court of Vermont in the 1790s. She argued against two of the leading lawyers in the state (one of whom later became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Vermont), and won her case against the false land claims of Colonel Eli Bronson. Samuel Chase, the presiding justice of the Court, said that her argument was better than he had heard from any Vermont lawyer.
She also delivered a three-hour address to the board of trustees of Williams College in order to gain admittance for her son Festus. While she was not successful, her speech was remembered for its eloquence and skill.
Death : The following obituary was published for Prince on Tuesday, August 21, 1821, in the Greenfield, Massachusetts, paper, The Frankylin Herald:
At Sunderland, Vt., July 11th, Mrs. Lucy Prince, a woman of colour. From the church and town records where she formerly resided, we learn that she was brought from Bristol, Rhode Island, to Deerfield, Mass. when she was four years old, by Mr. Ebenezer Wells: that she was 97 years of age—that she was early devoted to God in Baptism: that she united with the church in Deerfield in 1744—Was married to Abijah Prince, May 17th, 1756, by Elijah Williams, Esq. and that she had been the mother of seven children. In this remarkable woman there was an assemblage of qualities rarely to be found among her sex. Her volubility was exceeded by none, and in general the fluency of her speech was not destitute of instruction and education. She was much respected among her acquaintance, who treated her with a degree of deference.
Prince's husband died in 1794. By 1803, Prince moved to nearby Sunderland. She rode on horseback annually to visit her husband's grave until she died in 1821 on July 11.
- Gates, Henry Louis; Nellie Y. McKay (2003). The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 186. ISBN 9780393977783.
- Wheatley, Phillis; Vincent Carretta (2001). Vincent Carretta, ed. Complete Writings. New York: Penguin. p. 199. ISBN 9780140424300.
- Holland, Josiah Gilbert (1855). History of Western Massachusetts: The Counties of Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire. Springfield, MA: Samuel Bowles and Co. p. 350.
- "Lucy Terry Prince: "Singer of History"". The Franklin Herald (Greenfield, MA). August 21, 1821. Retrieved 23 February 2014.
- Gerzina, Gretchen Holbrook (2008). Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend. Amistad. ISBN 0-06-051073-0. ISBN 978-0-06-051073-2.
- Shockley, Ann Allen (1989). Afro-American Women Writers 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide. New Haven, Connecticut: Meridian Books. ISBN 0-452-00981-2.
- Bennett, Jr., Lerone (August 1977). "No Crystal Stair: The Black Woman in History". Ebony: 164–170.
- PBS: Africans in America: Lucy Terry
- Entry at AA Registry
- Encyclopædia Britannica entry for Lucy Terry