A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.
African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts
"Since my return to America my Master, has at the desire of my friends in England given me my freedom."
~Phillis Wheatley to David Wooster, 18 October 1773
Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley was the author of the first book of poetry by an African American, published in London in 1773. Prior to the book's debut, her first published poem, "On Messrs Hussey and Coffin," appeared in 1767 in the Newport Mercury. In 1770, her elegy on the death of George Whitefield, a celebrated evangelical Methodist minister who had traveled through the American colonies, drew international attention and the particular interest of Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon. Whitefield had been the Countess's personal chaplain. Wheatley published numerous individual poems in addition to her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, but a proposed second volume of poetry never appeared, and the manuscript was lost after her death in 1784.

Her Early Life

Born in West Africa about 1753, Wheatley was named for the slave ship, the Phillis, that brought her to Boston on 11 July 1761, and the Wheatley family who purchased her from the slave trader John Avery. John Wheatley was a prominent Boston merchant with a wholesale business, real estate, warehouses, wharfage, and the schooner London Packet. Susannah Wheatley was an ardent Christian and admirer of George Whitefield. A frail child between seven and eight years old, Phillis was chosen to be a domestic servant and companion to Mrs. Wheatley in her later years. Although she spoke no English upon her arrival in this country, she soon proved to be a precocious learner, and was tutored by the Wheatley's daughter Mary in English, Latin, history, geography, religion, and the Bible in particular. She was treated more as a member of the family than a servant or slave, and her education was that of a young woman in an elite Boston family. She was particularly well-acquainted with the classics, the Bible, and contemporary works, especially those of Alexander Pope, and these influences are readily apparent in her writing.

Fame and Misfortune

Phillis Wheatley's writing deskPhillis's debut volume of poetry was first proposed in 1772, but this early venture was unsuccessful, and eventually she turned to an English publisher for her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. In May of 1773 she accompanied the Wheatley's son Nathaniel to England, where plans for the publication had begun, but she was called home by the illness of Mrs. Wheatley, and departed before the book appeared in September. While she met many notables in London, she was unable to see the Countess of Huntingdon, who was away in Wales for the summer. Shortly after her return to Boston, Phillis was freed by her master, possibly under pressure from her English admirers. Mrs. Wheatley died in March of 1774, and Phillis's life from that point was plagued by ill health and an unhappy marriage. She drew up proposals for a second volume of poetry which was never published, probably due to wartime shortages in Boston. Her marriage in 1778 to John Peters, a free African American living in Boston, produced three children, two of whom soon died. By 1784 she was living in a boardinghouse, and, in December of that year, she and her remaining child died and were buried in an unmarked grave.

Featured Items

Poems by Phillis Wheatley

Letters by and about Phillis Wheatley

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