A Slave Who Became A Master

Poem Stories

A Slave Who Became A Master


This is the true story of an African American engineer who was born a slave in North Carolina.  He was genius as a builder and tradesman, and had such an unusual relationship with his master, John Godwin, that it is mentioned in Ripley's "Believe It Or Not".  His many creative masterpieces (especially covered bridges), and his ethical practices established him as a tradesman and a gentleman at a time when black and white did not mix.  He ran a business, and is buried in my home town of LaGrange, Georgia.  His grave, though unmarked for almost 100 years, is across from the old Confederate Cemetery.  I first learned of him when commissioned to produce a painting of the old covered bridge, Glass' Bridge, for a friend in 1987.  While digging through documents in the archives of Troup County Georgia to find accurate photos of the long-gone bridge, I met the builder of that much loved landmark.  Several times I sat in that quiet room filled with musty papers and wiped tears from my eyes while reading of his most unusual exploits.  His name was Horace King, and this pitiful poem is his story in a capsule.  Although his contributions were many, and he spent $800 of his own money to put a gravestone on the grave of his former owner, he lay in an unmarked spot for far too long.  The ladies of the Troup County Historical Society placed a marker there in 1970.  It is a simple concrete slab that reads, "Here lies Horace King, Master Covered Bridge Builder".  Who am I too argue with that?  The slave who became a master...


Back in eighteen four, they wrote, a woman had a son.

As a slave, the child she bore was then considered one.

His grandpa was Catawba, a tribe from Caroline,

He also had some white blood from gene pools of his line.


His name was Horace, and as the custom was from way back then,

"King" became his sir-name, same as the man who then owned him.

In 1812 the boy was sold to a builder gent by trade.

Horace, his mom and sister, didn't know the price he paid.


Godwin, sent the boy to school, and educated well,

He then worked with the building crew.  No one could know or tell,

That one day Horace King would make a name that all would know,

That he could build an edifice of quality to show.


The crew moved down to 'Bama to build a bridge or two,

A jail, a mill, a cotton gin, and fine homes, quite a few.

Across the Georgia line they worked and business was prime,

He was a genius, Horace King, a man before his time.


He guaranteed his work first-rate, did pre-fab bridges, then

He used the newest methods, made quality a trend.

Towne-lattice Trusse to build a bridge, the method Horace used.

Then roof above protected bridge from the elements' abuse.


Although the builders did fine work and went from place to place,

Never idle, constantly no fault in their work be traced,

Godwin's Building was failing, and soon bankrupt he would be,

So he went before the 'Bama House to set Horace free.


I have copies of documents relating to the deed,

And long before the Civil War, our Horace King was freed.

Those two men really trusted each other, Misters Godwin and King.

No blood kin they, but true concern, when man's word had a ring!


No man alive could buy him back, so Horace worked for self.

He and sons made quite a crew, and at building were adept.

My story could end here happily.  Let me tell the rest!

Until the day both Godwins died, King provided the best.


Least you think it part of the deal allowing to be free,

Long years later he gave his home to Godwin's daughter, did he.

Her worthless husband had bankrupt, gambled their home away.

Horace heard, went to her aid and and gave her somewhere to stay!


If you know a tree by fruit it bears, his was A-1 Prime.

A genius at craft and finance, leader in his time.

He served in state legislature, stopped an Indian war,

Kept his word to everyone and accomplished so much more!


I know this sounds like fiction, but I swear it's all the truth.

I can document each statement, show historical proof.

Each time I feel disappointed, like saying, "What's the sense?"

I think of this slave become "Master", and do my best again.


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salphire5's picture

Phew Jessica! What a story, and so perfectly expressed in your wonderful smooth- rolling style. What a lot of research went into this.
Beautiful, and inspiring too.
Super work.