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African-American History month part two, Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley (1753 - 1784), Phillis Wheatley Tribute at the Boston Women’s Memorial

Research tells us that Phillis Wheatley was brought to America from the Senegambia region of West Africa, in 1761. Transported to Boston on a slave schooner called the “Phillis,” she was purchased by John and Susannah Wheatley who thought the girl to be no more than seven or eight years of age. They named her Phillis, after the schooner she had been transported on, and taking the surname of her masters, she became Phillis Wheatley.   

It was not long before the Wheatley family recognized the potential of their young house slave and Phillis was educated and encouraged to write. Phillis’s first poem, "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin," was published locally in 1767. She was only thirteen-years-old. Phillis Wheatley’s bubbly personality and her affected literary style of writing created a considerable reputation for herself among the Boston elite, but it was the Whitefield elegy Phillis wrote when she was seventeen, that brought her international attention. George Whitefield, one of the great evangelists of that era, died in 1770. Phillis, being deeply impressed as all America were, wrote, An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield.

Unable to solicit her collection of poems in Boston because she was an African slave girl, She went to England with her mistress. With the help of the Countess of Huntingdon and Archibald Bell, Phillis was able to publish her first collection, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. The book came with asworn assurance that this teenage African girl had, in fact, written the poems. While in England, she was given the nickname "the sable muse," and was visited by such famous personages as the Earl of Dartmouth, Benjamin Franklin, and Voltaire among others.

Not long after the publication of her poems, Phillis Wheatley achieved her manumission. Susanna Wheatley, died in March of 1774 but Phillis stayed at the mansion a while longer writing patriotic verses and even corresponded with George Washington, composing the famous poem “To His Excellency General Washington.”

On 1 April 1776 Phillis Wheatley married John a free African-American and an ambitious entrepreneur. According to historians, Phillis spent the rest of her life in poverty and obscurity. Phillis and John Peters had three children who all died very young. John Peters left Phillis, and eventually was imprisoned for his debts. Phillis found she had to fend for herself and led a short but harsh life working in a boardinghouse. This was a sad twist of fate for one who had achieved her freedom through the mastery of literature. Her fame forgotten, her words fallen on deaf ears, Phillis died at the age of 31, on December 5, 1784.

Before she died, Phillis wrote a sixty-four-line poem in a pamphlet entitled Liberty and Peace, which hailed America as "Columbia" victorious over "Britannia Law." This was published under the name Phillis Peters. During her life Phillis Wheatley had written approximately 145 poems. After her death, two books of her writings were published: The Memoirs and Poems of Phillis Wheatley (1834) and The Letters of Phillis Wheatley (1864).

Phillis Wheatley paved the way for African-Americans in the literary world when she became one of the first African-America to publish a book.

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