This Day in History: Phillis Wheatley, first black American to publish a book of poetry
On this day in 1773, Phillis Wheatley becomes the first black American to have a book of poetry published.
Very little is known about Phillis Wheatley’s early life—not even her name at birth. She was born somewhere in Africa before falling victim to the slave trade: As a young girl, she was apparently kidnapped and taken to Boston.
By the time the ship arrived in the colonies, the slave trader had decided that Phillis was sickly and frail. He sold her for a “trifle” to a respected businessman named John Wheatley. His wife, Susanna, passed over stronger girls because she was said to be taken by the “humble and modest demeanor and the interesting features of the little stranger.”
Wheatley and his wife gave Phillis her new name. She was named after the ship that had carried her to the colonies.
A constant reminder of being kidnapped? Really not great.
The bad part of the story is that the Wheatleys felt comfortable purchasing Phillis. But the good part is that they soon noticed that Phillis was smart and wanted to learn. They’d purchased her because they’d wanted a young girl to help around the house. In the end, however, housework wasn’t really her focus. Instead, the Wheatley’s 18-year-old daughter began tutoring Phillis, teaching her to read and write.
Phillis worked hard, and she learned a lot! As a teenager, she began writing poetry. Her first poem was published in a newspaper in 1767.
Her big break came in the early 1770s. Phillis had published an elegy for the Reverend George Whitefield. That elegy was seen by Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon. The Countess was a well-known philanthropist, and she aided the Wheatley’s efforts to have Phillis’s book published.
A few years later, Phillis wrote another memorable poem. The Revolution had just begun, and Phillis’s poem praised George Washington:
“Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side, Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide. A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine.”
Washington saw the poem in late 1775, and he wrote Phillis in February 1776. He apologized to Phillis for his delay in responding, thanking her for the “polite notice of me” and for the “elegant Lines.” “[H]owever undeserving I may be of such encomium and panegyrick,” he added, “the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents.” He invited her to visit him at his camp outside Boston.
Thus, the Commander-in-Chief of the American Army, then still a slave owner, met with a black American female author.
What a meeting! Washington would eventually free his slaves. Surely this incident, and others like it, prompted him toward that decision? “Few incidents in the early days of the war,” Washington biographer Ron Chernow writes, “suggest how powerfully Revolutionary ideals were transforming George Washington as his reaction to Phillis Wheatley.”
After the Wheatleys passed away, Phillis married a freeman, John Peters. Finances were strained for the couple, and Phillis, by then a freed former slave, ended up becoming a servant. She unfortunately passed away at a young age in 1784.
Perhaps Phillis would most want to be remembered for one of her final poems, written during the last year of her life? It was a poem about the new American country, titled “Liberty and Peace.”
“Auspicious Heaven shall fill with fav’ring Gales, Where e’er Columbia spreads her swelling Sails: To every Realm shall Peace her Charms display, And Heavenly Freedom spread her golden Ray.”
Letter from George Washington to Phillis Wheatley (February 28, 1776)
Phillis Wheatley & John C. Shields, The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley (Oxford University Press ed. 1989)
Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (2010)
Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (2011)