Phillis Wheatley was not only the first published African American woman but also one of the first published female poets of the United States. She was born in Africa and sold to slavery but was fortunate to find an owner who encouraged her talents and ultimately liberated her. She was famous even during her time and was invited by George Washington to visit him. Know more about the life and accomplishments of Phillis Wheatley though these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 She was captured and sold to slavery when she was 7

Though the date and place of her birth is not known with certainty, historians reckon that Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753 most likely in present-day Gambia or Senegal. She was captured and sold to slavery when she was seven years old. On July 11, 1761, Wheatley was brought to Boston, Massachusetts on a slave ship called The Phillis.

On being brought from Africa to America
On being brought from Africa to America by Phillis Wheatley

 

Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley, as illustrated by Scipio Moorhead in the Frontispiece to her book Poems on Various Subjects

#2 Wheatley was named after the slave ship that brought her to U.S.

She was sold to John Wheatley, a wealthy Boston merchant and tailor, who bought her as a servant for his wife Susanna. They named the 8 year old girl Phillis after the ship that brought her to America. Phillis adopted her master’s last name as was the custom for slaves who were given a surname.

#3 She started writing poetry by the age of thirteen

The Wheatleys were known to be liberal for the time. Phillis, who suffered from poor health, was given unprecedented education for an enslaved person. By the age of 9, she learned to read and write; and by the age of 12, she had become familiar with Latin and Greek. Wheatley wrote her first poem when she was 13 and from the age of 14 her poems appeared in certain newspapers and periodicals in U.S. and Britain.

#4 Wheatley had to prove in court that her poems were written by her

Many whites couldn’t believe that it was possible for an African slave to write quality poetry and hence Wheatley was required to defend authorship of her poems in court in 1772. Her case was examined by a panel of influential thinkers and politicians of Boston who ultimately decided the poems which were attributed to her were indeed written by Wheatley. They signed an attestation as proof of their judgement.

Phillis Wheatley Authorship Attestation
Attestation which served as proof of Wheatley’s authorship of her work

 

#5 Her collection of poetry was published in 1773

Title Page of the 1773 edition of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral
Title Page of Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects

By 1772, Phillis Wheatley had gathered a collection of her poems and was looking for a publisher. However despite the attestation that she had written the poems, no American publisher was willing to publish her work. Susanna Wheatley, who had to travel to London due to her health, took Phillis along with her as she believed it was more likely that Phillis’ collection would be published there, England being more receptive to black authors. With help from Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, Wheatley’s poetry collection was published in September 1773 in London.

#6 Phillis Wheatley is the first published African-American woman

Wheatley’s poetry collection was titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The attestation which proved her authorship was included in the preface of the book. Publication of Wheatley’s book was a landmark achievement as it made her the first published African-American and the first U.S. slave to publish a book. She was also the third American woman whose work was published.

 

#7 G. Washington invited her to visit him after she sent him one of her poems

1776 Portrait of George Washington
A 1776 Portrait of George Washington

Publication of her book made Wheatley famous in both England and the American colonies. In 1775, she sent a poem to George Washington titled “To His Excellency, George Washington”. Washington wrote to Wheatley “however undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyrick, the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents.” The following year he invited Wheatley to visit him at his headquarters in Cambridge. The meeting took place in March, 1776.

#8 Wheatley was freed but struggled due to poverty

Susanna Wheatley died in 1774 and John Wheatley died in 1778. Phillis was freed from slavery by her master’s will. In 1778, she married a free African American grocer named John Peters. The couple struggled to make ends meet and two of their three children died in infancy. In 1784, John Peters was imprisoned for debt leaving Wheatley alone with their third child. She worked as a maid in a boarding house. Wheatley died at the age of 31 on December 5, 1784. Her infant child died shortly afterwards.

#9 She rarely wrote about herself or slavery

Phillis Wheatley Statue at the Boston Women's Memorial
Phillis Wheatley Statue at the Boston Women’s Memorial on the Commonwealth Avenue

Many of Wheatley’s poems were dedicated to famous figures with one-third being elegies. The most prevalent elements in her poems were Christianity; sun worship, which was practiced in her native land; and classicism, i.e. following ancient Greek and Roman principles in writing. Critics note that she scarcely wrote about her life or slavery. The reasons behind it are debated. It was perhaps because she had conflicting feelings about slavery.

#10 She made a phenomenal contribution to African American literature

Phillis Wheatley was not only the first African American to publish a book but also the first to achieve an international reputation as a writer and earn a living through her work. Several prominent figures of the time praised her work including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Brook Watson. Recognition and success of her work was an important step for African American literature and Wheatley’s contribution to it cannot be overstated. A statue to honor Wheatley was erected at the Boston Women’s Memorial on the Commonwealth Avenue in 2003.

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