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Wheatley, Phyllis, circa 1753-1784

 

Dates

  • Existence: 1753 - 1784

Phillis Wheatley, also spelled Phyllis and Wheatly (c. 1753 – December 5, 1784) was the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry. Born in West Africa, she was sold into slavery at the age of seven or eight and transported to North America. She was purchased by the Wheatley family of Boston, who taught her to read and write and encouraged her poetry when they saw her talent.

On a 1773 trip to London with her master's son, seeking publication of her work, she was aided in meeting prominent people who became patrons. The publication in London of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral on September 1, 1773, brought her fame both in England and the American colonies. Figures such as George Washington praised her work. A few years later, African-American poet Jupiter Hammon praised her work in a poem of his own.

Wheatley was emancipated (set free) by the Wheatleys shortly after the publication of her book. She married in about 1778. Two of her children died as infants. After her husband was imprisoned for debt in 1784, Wheatley fell into working poverty and died of illness. Her last infant son died soon after.

Phillis Wheatley's church, Old South Meeting House.

Although the date and place of her birth are not documented, scholars believe that Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753 in West Africa, most likely in present-day Gambia or Senegal. Wheatley was sold by a local chief to a visiting trader, who took her to Boston in the British colony of Massachusetts, on July 11, 1761, on a slave ship called The Phillis. It was owned by Timothy Fitch and captained by Peter Gwinn.

On arrival she was re-sold to John Wheatley, a wealthy Boston merchant and tailor who bought the young girl as a servant for his wife Susanna. John and Susanna Wheatley named the young girl Phillis, after the slave ship that had transported her to America. She was given their last name of Wheatley, as was a common custom if any surname was used for enslaved people.

The Wheatleys' 18-year-old daughter, Mary, first tutored Phillis in reading and writing. Their son Nathaniel also helped her. John Wheatley was known as a progressive throughout New England; his family gave Phillis an unprecedented education for an enslaved person, and for a female of any race. By the age of 12, she was reading Greek and Latin classics and difficult passages from the Bible. At the age of 14, she wrote her first poem, "To the University of Cambridge, in New England." Recognizing her literary ability, the Wheatley family supported Phillis's education and left the household labor to their other domestic slaves. The Wheatleys often showed off her abilities to friends and family. Strongly influenced by her studies of the works of Alexander Pope, John Milton, Homer, Horace and Virgil, Phillis began to write poetry.

In 1773, at the age of 20, Phillis accompanied Nathaniel Wheatley to London in part for her health, but also because Susanna believed Phillis would have a better chance of publishing her book of poems there. She had an audience with the Lord Mayor of London and other significant members of British society. (An audience with King George III was arranged, but Phillis returned to Boston before it could take place.) Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, became interested in the talented young African woman and served as the patron of Wheatley's volume of poems, securing its publication in London in the summer of 1773. As Hastings was ill, she and Wheatley never met.

After her book was published, by November 1773 the Wheatley family emancipated (formally freed) Phillis Wheatley. Her former mistress Susanna Wheatley died in the spring of 1774, and John Wheatley in 1778. Shortly after, Phillis Wheatley met and married John Peters, a free black grocer. They struggled with poor living conditions and the deaths of two babies.

Found in 2 Collections and/or Records:

Phillis Wheatley letter

Mss 769940.2
 Collection
Identifier: Mss 769940.2
Scope and Contents Two page signed holograph written by Phillis Wheatley of a poem on the death of Revd. Doctor Joseph Sewall, addressed to Jeremy Belknap.

Phillis Wheatley poem

Mss 772501.1
 Collection
Identifier: Mss 772501.1
Scope and Contents Two page poem written by Phillis Wheatley on the death of Charles Eliot aged 12 months. Text of poem in Phillis Wheatley's hand, together with a contemporary ms. transcript by Jeremy Belknap.