PITTSBORO — It was early in Don Tate’s life when he realized that basketball coaches wouldn’t be drawing up plays for him. He wasn’t good at sports.
But Tate could draw. So he made art his playground, and he brought that to Horton Middle School for the inaugural celebration of George Moses Horton Day on Feb. 27.
“Our kids do not know their namesake,” Horton Middle principal Valencia Toomer said. “It was extremely important to me that our students understand who they are and that the name Horton was not just a name that came out of thin air, but exactly who he was — inspirational, motivating and determined.”
George Moses Horton lived in Chatham County a couple of centuries ago. He was a slave, so the priority placed upon his life was lifting his hands to work for his owner, not learning to read and write. But George Moses Horton had other priorities and taught himself to turn letters into words and wound up becoming the first African-American in the South to publish a book of poetry.
“George’s life gives us a model of where literacy can take you,” Tate said.
Literacy escorted Tate into the publishing world. Based in Austin, Texas, where he is an author and illustrator, Tate said he heard about the push at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to have a dormitory named after George Moses Horton. Tate said that inspired him to write “Poet: The Remarkable Life of George Moses Horton.” After a bunch of revisions, he finally got it published.
“The more that you do it, the better you get,” Tate told Horton Middle students, who shared the school’s auditorium with Horton alumni, who stood up and filled the room with “Dear Old Horton High,” the school song they sang when the building housed an all-black high school.
“You kids today, the world is in your hand,” Horton High School alumnus George Reaves said.
Reaves, from the Horton class of 1953, wanted the Horton Middle students to avoid taking for granted the opportunities that they have — opportunities he didn’t have.
Tate told the students to increase their opportunities by getting more education beyond high school, whether that's at a four-year college or a two-year vocational school like the one he attended that helped hone his craft.
“That’s where you’re going to polish all of those talents,” Tate said. “You never know where your talents are gonna take you."
This past summer, Toomer said she gathered from her staff that Horton Middle needed to find a way build the relationship between the school, its surrounding community and their shared past.
“This is where the idea of the George Moses Horton Day derived,” Toomer said. “It seemed to address all areas, and it would provide our current students with an inside and in-depth look at our namesake.”
George Moses Horton Residence Hall, formerly Hinton James North, is at the corner of Manning and Bowles drives at UNC.
Horton Middle teachers Elaine Labate, Zack Chutz and Beryl Lemmons applied for a grant that secured the funds for Tate’s visit.