October 17, 1711 – before 1806
Jupiter Hammon was a Black poet who became the first African-American published writer in America when a poem appeared in print in 1760. He was a slave his entire life, and the date of his death is unknown.
He was living in 1790 at the age of 79, and died by 1806. Hammon was a devout Christian, and is considered one of the founders of African American literature.
Hammon was born a slave and was owned by four generations of the Lloyd family of Queens on Long Island, New York. His parents were both slaves. His father, called Opium, and unlike most slaves could read and write.
On September 24, 1786, He expressed his views on slavery when he delivered his “Address to the Negroes of the State of New York”, also known as the “Hammon Address”, before the African Society. Hammon wrote the speech at age seventy-six after a lifetime of slavery. It contains his famous words, “If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves.”
The speech draws heavily on Christian motifs and theology. For example, Hammon said that Black people should maintain their high moral standards precisely because being slaves on Earth had already secured their place in heaven. Hammon’s speech also promoted the idea of a gradual emancipation as a way of ending slavery. It is thought that Hammon stated this plan because he knew that slavery was so entrenched in American society that an immediate emancipation of all slaves would be difficult to achieve. His speech was initially published by the New York Quakers, and was later reprinted by several groups opposed to slavery, including the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, because the strong religious motifs and ideas of gradual emancipation were moderate enough to be taken seriously by whites, but still firmly rooted in abolition.
Hammon’s famous speech and his poetry are often anthologized. The first known African American to publish literature in the US (several years later in 1767, Phillis Wheatley had published her poems, but in England, not the US), Hammon was a favorite servant, clerk, farmhand, and artisan in the Lloyd family business. Hammon was allowed to attend school and was a fervent Christian, as were the Lloyds. His first published poem was written on Christmas Day, 1760. “An Evening Thought. Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries: Composed by Jupiter Hammon, a Negro belonging to Mr. Lloyd of Queen’s Village, on Long Island, the 25th of December, 1760″ appeared as a broadside in 1761. Three other poems and three sermon essays followed. In Hammon’s “Address to the Negroes of New York, to the African Society,” he said that while he personally had no wish to be free, he did wish others, especially “the young Negroes, were free.”