Happy Women’s History Month! This is the 1st blog of a series of blogs called “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known American women who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).
The focus of today’s blog is Phillis Wheatley, the first Black woman to publish a collection of poems, who is known as one of the greatest American poets of the 18th century.
This is her story.
Kidnapped into Slavery
According to poetryfoundation.org, Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa in 1753. At age seven, Wheatley was kidnapped and taken from her family to Boston. The horrendous traveling conditions made her ill so she arrived in Boston sickly and frail-looking in 1761. Soon after, she was purchased and enslaved by Susanna Wheatley, the wife of prominent sailor John Wheatley, to work in their household.
The Wheatley family began to notice how fast Phillis could learn and so they taught her to read and write. Eventually, Phillis had a working knowledge of all types of subjects. These included astronomy, history, geography, British literature, the Bible, and some other Greek and Latin classics. She began to delve into her own poetry, writing her first piece at age 13. She published this first poem, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” in 1797 in the weekly Rhode Island newspaper, Mercury.
A few years later, Wheatley wrote an elegy called An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield… It wasn’t until 1771 when it was first circulated as a pamphlet around the Northeastern colonies. Then, it made its way to London where locals published it with Ebenezer Pemberton’s funeral sermon for Whitefield. This brought Wheatley international attention.
First Collection of Poems
From that point on, Wheatley wrote a collection of 28 poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) which she ended up publishing in London. This made her the first Black person to publish a collection of poems in modern times. She gathered not only supporters from the colonies, but from England as well. During the time of publication, she traveled to London, where many prestigious members of British society, including Benjamin Franklin, welcomed her.
Marriage, Poverty, and Death
Eventually, all members of the Wheatley family died, making Phillis free from enslavement. She married an equally educated free Black man named John Peters, who had many professional lifetime ambitions. Together, they had children and moved around the colonies searching for work. They fell into hard economic times and experienced some bouts of poverty, with Peters sometimes leaving his family to fend for themselves. Still, Phillis continued to write and in 1779, she looked into publishing another collection of poems and letters dedicated to Benjamin Franklin. No opportunities came and so her 2nd collection as well as other lost writings weren’t published until after her death in 1784. Read more about Phillis Wheatley here.
Read another post from the blog series “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know” here.