Wheatley, Phillis

Variant first names: Philis
Birth: c. 1753 in West Africa
Death: 1784-12-05 in Boston, MA
Faith:

Christian

Nationality:

African

Occupation:

poet

Residence:

Boston (from 1761 to 1784)

Marital status:

Married in John Peters in 1778; they had three children.

Biography:

Phillis Wheatley is the first African-American woman to publish her writing. Born in West Africa around 1753, she was brought to America as a slave when she was eight. She was purchased by John Wheatley, a Boston merchant, as a servant for his wife, Susanna; they named her Phillis after the ship that transported her. The Wheatley children tutored Phillis, who was an avid student and quickly learned to read Greek and Latin classics as well as the Bible. Recognizing her abilities, the Wheatley family curtailed Wheatley's household duties and encouraged her reading. The Wheatleys supported the Revolutionary cause, as well as the same evangelical and missionary movements as Wheelock. Wheatley began writing elegies, occasional poems, and poems with religious and political themes in the Augustan style, several addressed to famous men of the time, which brought her acclaim. In 1770, she wrote a tribute to the English evangelical preacher George Whitefield, and in 1775 she wrote "To his Excellency George Washington," then general of the Continental Army, which solicited an invitation to visit him in Cambridge. Occom corresponded with Susanna Wheatley, who supported his activities, and from those letters we know that Wheatley and Occom also corresponded, as early as 1765. The only surviving letter of that correspondence, which was reprinted in several New England newspapers, is by Wheatley and dated February 11, 1774, in which she deplores the practice of slavery and points out the hypocrisy of Americans’ demands for freedom. Despite her renown, Bostonians doubted that a young slave girl could write poetry, and in 1772, the Wheatleys invited a group of illustrious men to "examine" Phillis, including Reverend Charles Chauncy, John Hancock, Thomas Hutchinson, the Royal governor of Massachusetts, and his lieutenant governor, Andrew Oliver, who was also treasurer of the Boston Board of the New England Company, which funded some of Wheelock's endeavors. Not finding a publisher, she traveled to England where she was supported by the Countess of Huntingdon and the Earl of Dartmouth, a member of the English Trust that handled the funds raised for Wheelock's School by Occom. "Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral" appeared in 1773. Freed in 1778, Wheatley married a free black man named John Peters. They struggled with poverty, and lost two children in infancy. Shortly after Peters was imprisoned for debt in 1784, Wheatley and her third infant child died; there is evidence that she had written another volume of poetry, but it has never been found.

Documents written: retrieve them
Documents received: retrieve them
All related documents: retrieve them
Sources:

Carretta, Vincent. Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. University of Georgia Press, 2011.