Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-84)
The corner of Beach and Tyler streets marks the spot where ships carrying kidnapped Africans would disembark at Beach Street Wharf. In 1761, a sickly, frightened seven- or eight-year-old girl from West Africa who spoke no English was “sold” to John Wheatley as a servant for his wife, Susannah. Susannah named the girl “Phillis” after the ship that carried her from Africa; she was given the last name of her “owners.”
Ill and frail as she was, Phillis Wheatley was given fairly light indoor work to do for the Wheatley family who included Susannah, John, and their two teenaged children Mary and Nathaniel. Phillis’s aptitude for learning was readily apparent, and Mary soon taught her to read and write in English. Phillis also studied Latin, literature, mythology, Christian theology, and geography. She wrote her first poem at the age off eleven, which stunned doubtful Bostonians. Phillis also became a devoted member of Old South Meeting House.
In 1770 newspapers in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania published Phillis’s poetic tribute to the evangelical preacher George Whitefield who had recently died, which propelled her into the spotlight. Susannah Wheatley was so impressed with Phillis’s ability she decided to publish a book of her poems in England. Eighteen prominent Boston men tested Phillis first to prove that she had, indeed, written her poems and did possess the knowledge of religion, mythology, and Latin her poems illustrated. Their signed statement appears at the beginning of Phillis’s book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which was published in England in 1773 while Phillis was traveling there with Nathaniel Wheatley. During her London visit, Phillis met some of Britain’s most prominent citizens who decried her legal status as a slave and renewed cries for America to end the hateful institution of slavery. With the publication of her book, Phillis Wheatley became the first African American published poet in America.
Susannah Wheatley freed Phillis upon her return to America, but Phillis remained in the Wheatley household until Susannah died in 1774. She continued to have poetry and letters published in local newspapers, focusing particularly on the evils of slavery and expanding the liberating expectations of the American Revolution to everyone. Her 1776 poem in praise of George Washington prompted a personal response from the General who invited Phillis to visit his headquarters in Cambridge. It is unclear if she ever did.
As a free woman Phillis struggled economically, even after marrying John Peters, a free African, in 1778. Their first two children died in infancy, and Phillis suffered from poor health. She wrote another book of poetry, which no Boston printer would produce, and published a poem in 1781 called “Liberty and Peace” that expressed her hopes for the new United States of America. Shortly after their third child was born, John Peters apparently deserted Phillis. Finally, her health failed and Phillis Wheatley died on December 5, 1784 at the age of thirty, followed soon after by her infant. The two were buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Boston.
Today, Phillis Wheatley’s book of poems is considered the starting place of African American literature.
- Bonnie Hurd Smith