First African-American Writer of Consequence
c. 1753 – 1784
By Patricia Chadwick
Phillis Wheatley was a highly educated woman and a gifted poet of the late eighteenth century. While it was unusual for woman of that era to be highly educated, it was almost unheard of for a slave to be able to read and write. Regardless, Phillis Wheatley was a slave girl whose education helped to her to become a recognized and published poet in the late 1700s.
Born in Senegal, West Africa c. 1753, Phillis was kidnapped from her native land and brought to America on a slave ship in 1761. That same year she was sold at a slave auction in Boston to the family of John Wheatley, a prominent Boston merchant. The Wheatley family treated Phillis with love and respect and allowed her unusual privileges for a slave, giving her the opportunity to learn to read and write.
When Phillis was still quite young, the Wheatleys recognized in her signs of a remarkable intelligence. She became the charge of the young Mary Wheatley, who, at age fifteen, had a thirst for knowledge and was one of the most highly educated women in Boston at the time. Mary took it upon herself to teach Phillis English and to educate her. Mary also enlisted the help of her twin brother, Nathaniel, to teach Phillis Latin. The family was also careful to teach Phillis the tenants of the Christian faith and she came to know the Bible well, becoming a Christian at a young age.
Phillis began to write poetry at the age of fourteen. Her first published work was a poem entitled On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin published in 1767 in the Newport Mercury. This was followed by a poem on the death of the Reverend George Whitefield, the great evangelical preacher who frequently toured New England titled An Elegiac Poem on the Death of the Celebrated Divine.George Whitefield. This poem, appearing in at least ten separate editions in major cities such as Boston, Newport, and Philadelphi, gave Phillis instant recognition and she became a sensation in Boston in the 1770s. The poem also appeared in London and she was contacted by Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, an intimate friend of Rev. Whitefield’s. The Countess invited Phillis to London to assist her in publishing her poems. Her first book of poems was published in 1773 and Phillis was lauded as England’s most acclaimed poet. Her connection with Selina Hastings helped Phillis’ reputation to spread across Europe and in America as well.
In 1773, upon hearing of the ill health of Mrs Wheatley and that Mary expecting another child, Phillis returned home to help take care of her beloved family. Mrs. Wheatley improved for a while after Phillis’ return, but she relapsed and died on March 3, 1774, leaving the Wheatley family devastated by the loss. Not long after, John Wheatley died and , since he was heavily in debt, the house was sold, but Phillis found that she was a free woman.
In 1778 Phillis married John Peters, a free black man, who had recently opended a grocery in Boston. She had two children Johnny, who died as a young boy, and Susan. In 1784, her husband was thrown into debtors prison leaving Phillis to make a living for herself and her daughter. She tried in vain to publish more of her poems to support her family, but was rejected at every turn because of her race. Finally, she took on a job as a scrub woman in a boarding house, but her health soon began to deteriorate. Despite her ill-health and dire circumstances, Phillis continued to write poetry. Sadly, she could not find a publisher that was willing to publish her work, mostly due to the struggling post-revolutionary economy. In 1784, however, she was able to publish several poems under the name of Phillis Peters. Never regaining her health, Phillis Wheatley died in poverty on December 5, 1784.
Phillis Wheatley’s literary gifts and godliness were an outstanding example to her audience of the human capacity to overcome circumstances of birth. Though Phillis went through many hard times, her poetry didn’t focus on injustice, but on positive themes, such as the salvation message of Christianity, morality, and piety. Her poems became popular again in the nineteenth century when they were reissued in the 1830s by Abolitionists who were eager to prove the human potential of blacks.