Early Years Phillis Wheatley Born in Senegal, Africa, and named after the ship that brought her from Africa to America. She was captured by Africans, and sold into slavery at the age of seven to John and Susannah Wheatley of Boston, Massachusetts on July 11, 1761. She was a frail child between ages seven and eight and was chosen to be a domestic servant and a companion to Mrs. Wheatley. John and Susannah became close to the young slave, and she was accepted as a member of the family, Christianized, and raised with the other two Wheatley children. The Wheatleys saw Phillis trying to write on a wall with chalk, and knew that she had the desire to learn. Rather than punish her for trying to learn to write, they encouraged her. The Wheatley’s daughter began to tutor Phillis in reading and writing. She also learned English literature, Latin and the Bible, but what she did best was writing poetry.
Early Years She admired English poets, Milton, Pope and Gray because their poetry touched her deeply and exerted a strong influence on her verse. Phillis’ poems reflect her religious classical New England upbringing, and several of her poems also were dedicated to famous personalities of the time. On December 21, 1767, at the age of fourteen, Phillis published her first poem in the Newport Mercury entitled: “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin.” Phillis became a Boston sensation after she wrote a poem on the death of the evangelical preacher George Whitefield in 1770 that was published throughout the colonies. Phillis rarely mentions her own situations in her poems, but her poem “On being brought from Africa to America” refers to slavery.
“On being brought from Africa to America” ‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land, Taught my benighted soul to understand That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too: Once I redemption neither sought nor knew Some view our sable race with scornful eye ‘Their colour is a diabolic dye’ Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.
Later Years In 1773, Phillis traveled with Nathaniel Wheatley (her master’s son) to England to find a publisher for her work. Selina Hasting, the Countess of Huntington helped to publish: The Collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which was the first book ever published by an African American. Phillis’ popularity as a poet both in the United States and England brought her freedom from slavery on October 18, 1773, but she stayed with the Wheatleys because they were the only family she had. After being freed, she published both an antislavery letter and poem to George Washington. In March 1776, three years after writing the letter to Washington, the President requested to meet her (but they never met). He liked her poetry because it reflected independence and the Revolutionary War. President George Washington wrote to Wheatley thanking and praising her, “great poetic Talents.”
Later Years The death of the Wheatleys effectively managed to cut Phillis’ ties to the intellectuals in the White society. She married John Peters, who was a free Black grocer and had three children out of which two died soon after they were born. Peters left her and she supported herself and her daughter by working as a scullery maid. In December 1781, Phillis Wheatley died in poverty. She was 31 years old. Her child died a few hours after her death. She had written another volume of poetry, but it has never been found.
Negative Responses Because many White people found it hard to believe that a Black woman could be so intelligent as a writer, Phillis had to defend her literary ability in court. She was examined by John Erving, Reverend Charles Chauncey, John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, and Andrew Oliver, to see if she was capable to produce such writing. The publishing company along with Mr. Wheatley continuously wrote letters to defend Phillis’ work: “We whose Names are underwritten, do assure the World, that the POEMS specified in the following Page, were (as we verily believe) written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl, who was but a few Years since, brought an uncultivated Barbarian from Africa, and has ever since been, and now is, under the Disadvantage of serving as a Slave in a Family in this Town. She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them.” Unlike George Washington, President Thomas Jefferson criticized Wheatley’s work. He wrote: "Religion indeed has produced a Phillis Wheatley, but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism."
Positive Responses Wheatley’s success gave African American slaves hope and made them proud. She was the most famous and well-known African American in the world. Voltaire wrote to a friend that Phillis Wheatley had proved that Black people could write poetry. John Paul Jones asked a fellow officer to deliver some of his personal writings to Phillis Wheatley because she inspired him so much. He called her “Phillis the African favorite of the Nine and Apollo.” In 1778, African American poet Jupiter Hammon wrote an ode to Wheatley and acknowledged their common bond.
In Memory of Ms. Wheatley Wheatley High school established on January 31, 1927 in Houston, Texas. Started out as an all Black school due to Jim Crow Laws, but in 1970 desegregated. Many more schools set up across the United States in Wheatley’s honor.
In Memory of Ms. Wheatley Statue located in Boston Women’s Memorial
In Memory of Ms. Wheatley Today, there are not only schools dedicated to Phillis Wheatley, but parks, and community centers as well. Many African Americans gather at these sights to remember Wheatley’s great achievements and work. Pictured: Michelle Obama, wife of Presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama at Phillis Wheatley Community Center in South Carolina.