Lucy Terry Prince
Around the year 1728, a girl child was stolen from her home in Africa. Her captors brought her to Boston where they sold her to Samuel Terry, who gave her the name, “Lucy Terry”. Lucy was still a child when her next owner, Ebenezer Wells, brought her to Deerfield, Massachusetts, to join his household which consisted of himself, his wife Abigail, and another slave; a man named Caesar. Ebenezer Wells and Abigail had no children. Lucy performed household tasks with and for her mistress. She also may have worked in one of Deerfield’s taverns cooking meals and waiting on customers. Mrs. Wells thought it was important that Lucy receive some education and religious instruction. In 1735, Lucy was baptized and in 1744, when she was around the age of 20, she became a full member of the church in Deerfield.
Lucy was about 16 when Native American warriors attacked a handful of Deerfield residents working in their farm fields. Lucy knew these people and she was appalled by what had happened, so she composed a poem about the attack that she titled, “The Bars Fight”. It is considered to be the first piece of poetry composed by an African American. Lucy was well known for her storytelling and she recited her poem to those around her for many years. It isn’t known for certain whether she ever wrote it down. “The Bars Fight” would not appear in print until after she died.
In 1756, Lucy married a free black man named Abijah Prince. They lived in Deerfield until after the birth of their 6th child, when they moved to land Abijah owned in Guilford, VT. When trouble arose in 1785 with threatening white neighbors, Lucy went to the governor of Vermont for assistance. He ordered the Guilford selectmen to protect the Prince family. When another white neighbor claimed that a portion of the Prince’s land belonged to him, Lucy successfully argued her case in the Vermont Supreme Court. The presiding judge commented that Lucy was more effective at fighting for her land than any lawyer in Vermont. She accomplished this at a time when women did not usually speak out in public or argue cases in court.
According to stories told by Deerfield residents who knew Lucy, one of her sons applied to Williams College, which was just opening in 1791 in Williamstown. The college refused to admit him because he was black. Lucy asked for a special meeting with the leaders of the college. People remembered that she spoke to these men for 3 hours about why her son should be allowed to be a student there. Unfortunately, the leaders did not agree with her and her son was not permitted to attend the college.
After having accomplished so much and after having fought so doggedly for her family’s rights, this same woman, upon visiting white acquaintances in Deerfield in her later years, refused to dine with them, saying, “No, Missy, no, I know my place.” 1
Lucy Terry Prince died in Sunderland, VT, in 1821, at around the age of 91. Her obituary of 1821 made a point of telling readers about Lucy’s literary talents: “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 captivated all around her and was not destitute of instruction and edification. All considered her a prodigy in conversation. She was much respected among her acquaintance, who treated her with a degree of deference.” 2
- Sheldon, George, The History of Deerfield, Vol. II, 1896, pg. 905
- Obituary, “The Vermont Gazette”, Bennington, VT., 8/1/1821, vol. XII, no. 41, whole no. 613, pg. 3