After being snatched from her parents home in West Africa and sold into slavery in Boston, Phillis Wheatley became the first black woman to publish a book of poetry in 1773.
Born around 1753 in West Africa, most likely in present-day Gambia or Senegal, Wheatley was captured by slave traders and sold into slavery at the age of seven or eight by a local chief to a visiting trader, who took her to Boston in the British Colony of Massachusetts, on July 11, 1761, on a slave ship called The Phillis.
On arrival in Boston, she was bought by a wealthy Boston merchant and tailor John Wheatley as a slave for his wife Susanna. John and Susanna Wheatley named her Phillis, after the ship that had brought her to America. She was given their last name of Wheatley, as was a common custom for enslaved people.
The Wheatley family afforded Phillis an unprecedented education for an enslaved person. By the age of 12, she was reading Greek and Latin classics in their original languages, as well as difficult passages from the Bible. At the age of 14, she wrote her first poem, “To the University of Cambridge in New England”.
Recognizing her literary ability, the Wheatley family supported Phillis’s education and left household labor to their other domestic enslaved workers. The Wheatleys often showed off her abilities to friends and family. Strongly influenced by her readings of the works of Alexander Pope, John Milton, Homer, Horace, and Virgil, Phillis began to write poetry.
In 1773, with financial support from her patrons, Phillis traveled to London with the Wheatley’s son to publish her first collection of poems, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral”, the first book written by a black woman in America.
The publication in London of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral on September 1, 1773, brought her fame both in England and the American colonies. She “became the most famous African on the face of the earth.”
She was honored by many of America’s founding fathers, including George Washington.
The publication of her book didn’t go smoothly though as many colonists found it hard to believe that an African slave was capable of writing “excellent” poetry. Phillis had to defend her authorship of her poetry in court. She was examined by a group of Boston experts, including Thomas Hutchinson, the governor of Massachusetts, and his lieutenant governor Andrew Oliver. They concluded she had written the poems ascribed to her and signed an attestation, which was included in the preface of her book.
After her book was published, the Wheatleys emancipated Phillis. Her former enslaver Susanna died in the spring of 1774, and then in 1778, Phillis’s former owner, John Wheatley, with whom she had continued to live since having gained her freedom in 1773, died and left her nothing.
Shortly after her former master’s death in 1778, Phillis met and married John Peters, a free black shopkeeper who sold rye, wheat, tea, nails, sugar, and other goods.
One year after her marriage, Wheatley issued a proposal for a second volume of poems but was unable to publish it because she had lost her patrons after her emancipation.
Wheatley’s marriage to john was initially prosperous and promising, according to tax and court records. Phillis and John Peters lived in a relatively upscale section of Boston but things took a different turn when he lost lawsuit by one of his own creditors in 1780. The debt he owed her was greater than his net worth. Faced with the choices of imprisonment for debt, or fleeing to avoid prosecution, Peters apparently chose the latter.
In 1784, her husband who was imprisoned for debt. With a sickly infant son to provide for, Phillis became a domestic servant at a boarding house, work she had not done before. She died in poverty on December 5, 1784, at the age of 31. Her infant son died soon after.
Today, critics consider her work fundamental to the genre of African-American literature, and she is honored as the first African-American woman to publish a book of poetry and the first to make a living from her writing.