Who Was Phillis Wheatley?

Phillis Wheatley and Abigail Adams at the Boston Women's Memorial in Back Bay, Boston, a monument celebrating women's history in the USA. Editorial credit: Jorge Salcedo / Shutterstock.com

Phillis Wheatley was the first female African-American to publish a book of poetry and became a well-known poet in the 18th century. At the age of about eight, Wheatley was enslaved in Senegal, within a region that is presently the Gambia, and then sold and transported to Boston, where she was bought by John and Susannah Wheatley. While a slave, Wheatley was taught to read and write and later published a book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious, and Moral. The book was published on September 1, 1773, and made her famous both in America and England, attracting praise from numerous people, including George Washington.

Early Life

Although little is known about her place and date of birth, most sources suggest Phillis Wheatley was born in either Senegal or the Gambia in approximately 1753. At the age of seven or eight, she was sold to a visiting slave trader who transported her to Boston, Massachusetts, the United States in July 1761. Upon arrival in Boston, she was sold to a wealthy tailor, John Wheatley, who purchased her as a slave for his wife, Susannah Wheatley. The Wheatleys renamed her "Phillis," which was the name of the ship that brought her to America. The Wheatley family educated Phillis, teaching her how to read and write, and by age 12 she was reading Greek and Latin classics. She began writing poetry at 14 years of age, and after realizing how talented Phillis was, the Wheatleys relieved her of her household duties and instead supported her education. 

Publication And Visit To London

In 1773, when Phillis was about 20 years old, her first book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious, and Morals was published, making her the first female African-American published poet. That same year, Phillis and Nathaniel Wheatley, John’s son, went to London for health reasons, as well as because Susannah believed she was more likely to publish her poems while in London. While in England, Phillis met the Lord Mayor of London and was also scheduled to meet other prominent British figures, such as King George III, but returned to America before the meeting occurred. In 1775, Phillis wrote a poem for George Washington entitled To His Excellency, George Washington, which was republished by Thomas Paine in April 1776 in the Pennsylvania Gazette. George Washington invited Wheatley to visit him in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the two met in March 1776.

Later Life

Phillis was emancipated by the Wheatley family in 1773, and Susanna and John Wheatley died in 1774 and 1778, respectively. In 1778, Phillis married John Peters, and the couple had two children who died as infants due to poor living conditions. Phillis continued to write poems but could not afford to publish her second volume. John Peters was arrested and imprisoned in 1784 due to unpaid debts, and Phillis fell ill and died in December of that same year.


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