People & Events
c.1754 - 1784
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Phillis Wheatley was the first African American, the first slave, and the third woman in the United States to publish a book of poems.
Kidnapped in West Africa and transported aboard the slave ship Phillis to Boston in 1761, she was purchased by John Wheatley as a servant for his wife. Young Phillis quickly learned to speak English and to read the Bible with amazing fluency.
Because of her poor health, obvious intelligence, and Susannah Wheatley's fondness for her, Phillis was never trained as a domestic; instead she was encouraged by the Wheatleys to study theology and the English, Latin and Greek classics. She published her first poem in 1767, and six years later, she published a book, Poems on Various Subjects. That same year, John Wheatley emancipated her.
Wheatley achieved international renown, traveling to London to promote her book and being called upon as well as received by noted social and political figures of the day -- including George Washington, to whom she wrote a poem of praise at the beginning of the war, and Voltaire, who referred to her "very good English verse."
Wheatley lived in poverty after her 1778 marriage to John Peters, a free black Bostonian. Although Wheatley advertised for subscriptions to a second volume of poems and letters, she died before she was able to secure a publisher. Her final manuscript was never found.
Image Credit: Schomburg Center
Illustration for Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects
Portrait of Phillis Wheatley
"To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth"
Letter to Reverend Samson Occum
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