Wheatley, Susanna

Birth: 1709
Death: 1774
Faith:

Congregationalist

Nationality:

Anglo-American

Residence:

King Street, Boston, MA

Marital status:

Married to John Wheatley 25 December 1741; they had five children: John, Susanna and Sarah died prematurely; twins Mary and Nathaniel lived to adulthood.

Biography:

Susanna Wheatley was the mistress of Phillis Wheatley, a slave who became famous as the as poet and the first African-American woman to be published. In 1741, Wheatley married John Wheatley, a prosperous tailor, merchant, moneylender and constable of Boston. In 1761 John purchased a young African girl who had been kidnapped from West Africa to be Susanna's servant. They named her Phillis, after the ship that transported her. As active Congregationalists, they felt it their duty to teach the girl to read the Bible. Phillis showed uncommon aptitude and was soon reading Greek and Latin as well as English. Susanna Wheatley was engaged in missionary work through correspondence (her correspondence with Occom dates from 1765), financial donations, and entertaining guests, including Presbyterian and Anglican Methodist missionaries who stayed in the Wheatley house in Boston. Phillis was allowed to mix freely with political, religious, and socially prominent guests. When she began writing poetry, often dedicated to Susanna's extended family and influential acquaintances, Susanna encouraged and promoted her through a series of drawing room performances. Not able to find a publisher in Boston, Susanna sent Phillis to England with the Wheatley son Nathaniel, where, through her connections to the evangelical George Whitefield, Phillis met Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, who became her patron, and helped publish her collection of verse in 1773. When Susanna Wheatley died in 1774 after a long illness, Phillis wrote to John Thornton, the English philanthropist and treasurer of the Trust for Wheelock's Indian School, "By the great loss I have sustain'd of my best friend, I feel like One forsaken by her parent in a desolate Wilderness." Although critics debate Phillis' status in the Wheatley home, in a letter to her friend Obour Tanner, Phillis thanked Susanna Wheatley for adopting her and treating her "more like her child than her servant."

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Sources:

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