Phillis Wheatley

The first published African American poet, Phillis Wheatley was sold into slavery at the age of seven. Bought by a family in Boston who taught her to read and write, Wheatley's poetry came to be admired by George Washington, as well as generations of poets and Americans of all races. Her poetry has been set to music by American composers Tom Cipullo and Libby Larsen.

Image: Phillis Wheatley, frontispiece from Wheatley's 1773 publication, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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Phillis Wheatley’s exact birthdate and birthplace are unknown, but at the age of seven, she was seized from Africa. She was taken to Boston, since she was not fit for hard labor in the South or West Indies. She was purchased by the Bostonian John Wheatley as a domestic servant for his wife.

Wheatley’s precociousness became apparent quickly, and the entire Wheatley family taught young Phillis to read and write (though she continued her household duties as well).

Wheatley earned national recognition with her 1770 poem “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield.” The poem was published on a broadside and a pamphlet in both Boston and Philadelphia, along with the funeral sermon from Whitefield’s funeral.

After this success, Wheatley sought a publisher for her poetry, but could not find one in America willing to publish the writing of an black woman. In 1771, Phillis and Mr. Wheatley’s son Nathaniel journeyed to London and were welcomed by several dignitaries there, including Benjamin Franklin. Her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in 1773 by Englishman Archibald Bell. The first American edition of this volume was not published until two years after Wheatley’s death.

Wheatley was released from her position in the Wheatley household in 1774, a few months before the death of Mrs. Wheatley. In 1778, Wheatley married John Peters, a free black man who kept a grocery. The marriage was not a happy one, mainly due to the difficulties faced by free blacks during and after the Revolutionary War. All of the Wheatley’s three children died in infancy, and Peters and Wheatley lived in a constant state of poverty. The couple moved to Wilmington (outside of Boston) during the Revolutionary War to avoid the conflict.

The members of the Wheatley family all passed away by 1783, and Wheatley no longer had benefactors to help her publish her poetry. She died at the age of 31, a few hours before the death of her infant son.

–Christie Finn
Source: Sondra A. O’Neale’s article on the Poetry Foundation website

Related Information





Sheet Music

Climbing: Poems by African-Americans

Composer(s): Tom Cipullo

Buy via Classical Vocal Reprints

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