A literary prodigy, the first African-American slave to have published a book.
Born in West Africa in 1753, and at age 7, she was sold into slavery and taken to Boston in the British colony of Massachusetts. Despite her poor health and chronic asthma, upon her arrival, she was bought by a wealthy progressive merchant and tailor John Wheatley, as a servant to his wife, Susanna. She was named “Phillis” after the ship in which she arrived and was given the last name of her master, as was the custom.
Phillis Wheatly was tutored in literacy by Mary, the Wheatley’s 18-year-old daughter, with some help from Nathaniel, their son. Her literary abilities were extraordinary, and at the age of twelve she was already reading masterpieces in classic Greek and Latin, and verses from the bible. The Wheatley’s investment in her education was unprecedented, but her talent was too great to deny.
Wheatly began writing poetry at the age of twelve, inspired by her studies, and despite the Wheatley’s support in advertising her work, the colonists in America weren’t willing to support African poetry.
Encouraged by Susanna Wheatly, who thought there are better opportunities in London, 20 years old Phillis traveled to England, accompanied by Nathaniel. There, she was greatly appreciated and adored by some of the famous poets of that time.
Her poetry book, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral”, was published there while she was already on her way back to Boston, and in 1773, its volume was the first book published by an African writer in America.
In that same year, she was freed, and John and Susanna died soon after. Without patrons, she didn’t succeed in raising funds for her second book, and it was never published.
“In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance”
More Interesting Anecdotes:
- She corresponded with some of the most respected people of the time, such as George Washington who invited her to visit him, and Benjamin Franklin who adored her work.
- She married a free man and had three children that didn’t survive past childhood. She herself died at the age of 31.
- Phillis Wheatly Statue is one of the three women presented in The Boston Women’s Memorial.
- Her name is commemorated in various schools and public locations around the USA.