Phillis Wheatley, first female black poet

Phillis Wheatley, the first known published female black poet in the United States, was born 1753 in West Africa.  In 1761, against her will she brought to New England and sold to John Wheatley of Boston.  The Wheatley’s, taking an interest in her education and her precocious nature, allowed her to learn to read and write, in which she became proficient by the age of nine. 

Modelling her works after John Milton, Thomas Gray, and Alexander Pope, she began writing poetry at the age of thirteen.  Her first published poem “On the Death the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield” was published in many major cities including Boston, New York, Philadelphia and London.  Over the course of the next few years, she continued to print a number of such broadsides elegizing prominent British and colonial leaders.

In 1771, at the suggestion of her doctor, she accompanied Nathalie Wheatley to London where she was well received.  Two years later, in 1773, she published thirty-nine of her poems in London as Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.  The book included some of her elegies, but also poems treating race such as “On Being Brought from Africa to America”.

She returned to America later the same year, where she was emancipated shortly after*.  In 1776, she wrote a letter and a poem in support of George Washington to which he responded with an invitation to visit him at Cambridge, stating that he would be “happy to see a person so favoured by the muses.”

In 1778, she married John Peters, a grocer, and had three children, all of whom died young.  She continued to write, producing a second volume that would include thirty-three new poems and thirteen letters, but was unable to raise enough money to publish them.  Many of the poems for this volume have been lost to time.

She died alone in a boarding house on December 5, 1784 at the age of thirty-one.

* There is some debate as to the exact timing of her emancipation.  Scholars believe it to be somewhere between 1774-78, corresponding to the passing of Mrs. Wheatley (1774) and Mr. Wheatley (1778).