Ms. Phillis Wheatley
Born in approximately 1753 in Gambia, Africa (modern day Senegal) Wheatley was kidnapped and taken to America in 1761 aboard a slave ship called "Phillis" (from which she received her name). She was purchased in Boston by a wealthy merchant named John Wheatley and his family. The Wheatley’s both instructed her and encouraged her education, including study of foreign languages such as Latin, and history. Phillis Wheatley was tutored by the Wheatley’s son Nathaniel in English, Latin, History, Geography, Religion, and the Bible.
Phillis’ popularity as a poet both in the United States and England ultimately brought her freedom from slavery on October 18, 1773. She appeared before General Washington in March 1776 for her poetry and was a strong supporter of independence during the Revolutionary War.
Because many white people of the time found it hard to believe a black woman could be so intelligent in writing poetry, Wheatley had to defend her literary ability in court in 1772. She was examined by a group of Boston luminaries including John Erving, Reverend Charles Chauncey, John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, and his Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver. They concluded that she had in fact written the poems ascribed to her and signed an attestation which was published in the preface to her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in Aldgate, London in 1773. The book was published in London because publishers in Boston had refused to publish the text. Wheatley and her master's son, Nathanial Wheatley, went to London, where Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, and the Earl of Dartmouth helped with the publication.
After the death of the Wheatley family, she married a free black grocer named John Peters. This marriage produced three children, two of whom soon died. Her husband left her and Wheatley earned a living as a servant. By 1784 she was living in a boarding house and, in December of that year, she and her remaining child died and were buried in an unmarked grave. She died in poverty at the age of 31. Wheatley's third child died only a few hours after her death. At the time of her death, there was a second volume of poetry but neither it nor any of her other works have ever been seen.
Statue honoring Phillis Wheatley at the Boston Women's Memorial
Phillis is remembered for many first time accomplishments from a woman of her day:
- First African American to publish a book
- An accomplished African American woman of letters
- First African American woman to earn a living from her writing
- First woman writer encouraged and financed by a group of women (Mrs. Wheatley, Mary Wheatly, and Selina Hastings.)
Wheatley's book is today seen as helping create the genre of African American literature.