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Lucy Terry Prince (1733 - 1821)

Lucy Terry Prince was a Black orator, activist, mother, landowner, and poet. She was also the author of the first known work of African American literature, the poem “Bars Fight” and she was the first Black woman to argue a case to the Supreme Court.

Lucy was kidnapped in Africa as an infant and sold into slavery in Rhode Island. At the age of 5, she became the property of Captain Ebenezer Wells of Deerfield, Massachusetts. She lived with the Wells family in Deerfield for the next 20 years, working as a servant. In 1756, Terry Prince married Abijah Prince. He was a freeman and helped Lucy gain her freedom. Together, they had 6 children.

Lucy Terry Prince was recognized as a woman of intelligence and determination. She was the first Black woman to present a case to the Supreme Court (a case which she won!) Lucy was well known for her speaking ability and she used her skills a number of times in defense of her family's rights and property. In 1785, when a neighboring white family threatened the Princes, Lucy and Abijah appealed to the governor and his Council for protection. The Council ordered Guilford's selectmen to defend the Prince family.

Later, when a Colonel Eli Bronson attempted to steal land owned by the Princes, the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. Lucy argued against two of the leading lawyers in the state, one of whom later became chief justice of Vermont -- and she won. Samuel Chase, the presiding justice of the Court, said that her argument was better than he'd heard from any Vermont lawyer.

Lucy later delivered a three-hour address to the board of trustees of Williams College while trying to gain admittance for her son Festus. She was unsuccessful, and Festus was reportedly denied entry on account of the school's racist admission policies.

Lucy Terry Prince composed poetry that was passed down orally, as was common in those times. Most of her works were not formally published, only the poem “Bars Fight” remains. The ballad was printed in 1855 (Josiah Holland’s History of Western Massachusetts) for the first time, more than one hundred years after it was composed, and was thus preserved. The poem describes a violent incident between settlers and Native Americans in Deerfield in 1746. Lucy Terry's work is considered the oldest known work of literature by an African American, though Phillis Wheatley's, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral", printed in 1773, was the first published work by an African American.

Lucy's husband died in 1794 and it is noted that she rode on horseback annually to visit her husband's grave until she died in 1821 at the age of 97.

The following obituary was published for Lucy Terry 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 six 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."

The Prince family was remembered in the Guilford community for many decades after their death.

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