BHM Profile: Phillis Wheatley

Written by: Emily Vargo

Over the years, there have been many great poets and writers, but one poet, in particular, has an interesting story. She would become the first African-American author to publish a book of poetry. This amazing author is Phillis Wheatley.

Phillis was born sometime in 1753 somewhere in West Africa. When Phillis was around 7 to 8 years old, she was sold into slavery and was taken to Boston on July 11, 1761, a British colony of Massachusetts at the time.

John Wheatly bought Phillis as an enslaved person for his wife, Susanna. Upon her arrival, they renamed her Phillis after the boat’s name that took her to America. The enslavers made her last name the same as theirs, which was a common custom for enslaved people.

John Wheatly was known as a progressive. He allowed his daughter and son to tutor Phillis. Then, by age 12, she was reading Greek and Latin classics in their original languages and challenging passages in the bible. By age 14, Phillis wrote a poem to The University of Cambridge, now known as Harvard.

The family soon saw her literary abilities and let her study while others did other household chores. The family showed her off to their friends and family because of her ability to read and write so well.

In 1773 at the age of 20, Phillis traveled to London with the eldest son to seek medical treatment for her chronic asthma and get her first book published.

The family felt that Phillis would have better luck getting published in London than anywhere else. Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, was fond of Phillis and had her poems volumized and published. After Phillis’s book was published in November 1773, the Wheatleys emancipated Phillis.

Not long after, Sussana and John passed away. Shortly after their death, Phillis met and married John Peters. They would have three children, but unfortunately, all died as infants.

In 1784, John was imprisoned for debt, and Phillis became a maid at a boarding house and died December 5, 1784, at age 31. Even though she spent her later life in poverty and left this earth at a young age, she left behind a fantastic legacy. Her amazing poems are still here for all of us to read,

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