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​Phillis Wheatley - Great African American Author

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley   c.1753-1784

On an ordinary day in 1761, a ship docked in the Boston harbor bearing a most precious cargo.  Somewhere buried in its hull was a little slave girl of unknown origin.  Some say she was from Ethiopia; others say, Senegal, West Africa.  Judging from the loss of her first teeth, she could have been between the ages of 6 and 8.  She was of no known parentage--slave captors did not record vital statistics--yet she was to leave her mark upon the chronicles of time.  She became a pioneer in literary history, a poetess of the American Revolution, and the first Black female poetess in the United States.  She was Phillis Wheatley.

Phillis Wheatley stood on the auction block, thin and frail, terrified, not understanding the noisy crowd of buyers surrounding her.  Her small hand clutched at the dirty, scanty piece of cloth half hiding her nakedness, when suddenly a strange but gentle hand led her to a carriage , wherein she was greeted by a warm, smiling face.  She had been purchased by John Wheatley, a wealthy merchant tailor, for his wife Susannah.  Mrs. Wheatley had been so touched by the pathetic appearance and modest look of this little Black girl that she could not fight the swell of compassion in her heart.

Once at the Wheatley home, Phillis was treated as a daughter and assigned chores relative to the status of lady.  Mrs. Wheatley referred to her as "my Phillis."  Phillis was taught to read and write by the Wheatleys' son and daughter.  In short time they learned that Phillis possessed an unusual precocity.  Within sixteen months of her arrival, she had "attained the English language...to such a degree as to read any, the most difficult parts, of the Sacred Writings."  She learned geography and history and became quite proficient in Latin.  She was a privileged person.  At age 14, she began writing poetry.  Its was not long before knowledge of this gifted slave girl attracted the attention of the most distinguished Bostonians.

In 1770, Phillis wrote her first published poem--"On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield," an elegy, which came to the attention of the Countless of Huntington in England.  Three years later, when Phillis was sent to England for reasons of health, the Countess introduced her to the Lord Mayor and other members of nobility.  Phillis so impressed the noble crowd of England that before she left, the Countess had arranged to have a volume of her poems published.  In 1773, the first book of poems by an American Black woman came off the press.  It consisted of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.  To prove Phillis' authorship, a foreword attesting to Phillis' talent was signed by eighteen prominent Massachusetts men, including the wealthy merchant John Hancock and the governor of the colony.  Just before Phillis was to be presented at Court, she received word that her mistress was deathly ill.  She hurried home after one month of historic success.

Good fortune soon gave way to misfortune.  Her mistress died in 1774, and her master died in 1778.  Phillis became a free person, in the sense that she was not owned, but she became an instant slave of hard times, sadness, and a life of poverty.  The Revolutionary War changed her life as well as others.  One month after the death of John Wheatley, she married a pseudo-gentleman by the name of John Peters.  Peters was not a good provider, and Phillis was forced to work as a servant.  She bore two children, who died almost immediately after birth.  Phillis' health failed, and soon death came for her and her third child.  She and the child died within hours of each other on December 5, 1784.  Just before she died, she wrote a long poem entitled Liberty and Peace.

Excerpt from A Salute to Historic Black Women. 

This is only a summary of the life of the Great Poet Phillis Wheatley.