Monday, March 5, 2018

Phillis Wheatley -- Slave and Poet #womenshistorymonth

March is Women's History Month. Even though I have a bookshelf full of books to review and share with you, I thought I would take time out to share about Phillis Wheatley. Hazel has a history presentation today on Phillis Wheatley so we have been learning quite a bit about her lately. I can't wait to see Hazel dressed up as her and do her presentation. There is a photo below. 

Phillis Wheatley frontispiece

At the age of 7 or 8 Phillis Wheatley was kidnapped from Africa. It is believed she came from the Senegambia region of Western Africa. She was forced to come America. The ship, Phillis, carrying her to Boston, Massachusetts. At the slave market John and Susannah Wheatley were looking for a young slave to help in the household in 1761. It is thought that Susannah took pity on the young, sickly girl and decided to purchase her. As was custom she took their last name and Susannah named her after the ship that brought her to America. 

Phillis was a frail child and did not do much of the heavy household work. It was obvious to the family that Phillis was very intelligent. Susannah's daughter, Mary, began to teach Phillis to read and write in English as well as Latin and Greek. Some sources say Susannah and Mary's twin brother, Nathaniel, also helped with the teaching. It is believed they started to teach her to read so she could read the Bible. They converted her to Christianity. On August 18, 1771 Phillis Wheatley was baptized at the Old South Church (formally known as the Old South Meeting House). It was not the Wheatley family's church, but it is where Benjamin Franklin was baptized and where the Boston Tea Party was organized. 

Hazel with Phillis Wheatley Statue in Old South Meeting House

Soon Phillis began to write poems. Susannah was impressed by Phillis's poetry and pushed it to get published. At age 13 Phillis had a poem published in the Newport Mercury. The Wheatleys had fled Boston to Newport, Rhode Island due to the British occupation of the city and the Red Coats marching in the streets daily. 

The Wheatleys treated Phillis like family although they did not grant her freedom right away. Susannah discouraged Phillis from having much contact with other blacks. Susannah also often put Phillis on display by having her recite poems at social gatherings. She also put Phillis in touch with various people who often would visit Phillis and bring her gifts. 

In 1773, Phillis tried to publish her first book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, but first had to appear in front of 17 men in Boston to prove she had truly written the poems. A letter signed by the men appeared inside the book. One of the men was John Hancock. This book is the first book written by an African American published in America and it was the first book written by a slave to be published. Phillis Wheatley was the third American woman to publish a book. Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntington, in England, supported and helped pay for the book's publishing. 

Wheatley Poems
It is believed that Susannah hired a slave named Scipio Moorhead to paint the portrait of Phillis used in the frontispiece of the book. 

Phillis wrote poems on various subjects. Many about events and people of the time. A famous one was "On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield. 1770." This poem is the one that helped Phillis become renowned. It was widely published in America and also published in London the following year. She also wrote a letter and poem to General George Washington to encourage him during the Revolutionary War. He later wrote back inviting her to visit him at his headquarters in Cambridge. It is believed she did meet with George Washington. 
On being brought from africa to america
On Being Brought from Africa to America By Phyllis Wheatley (national archives UK) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Around the time of her book being published, Phillis's asthma acted up and the doctors suggested she go abroad to get fresh air. Nathaniel Wheatley was traveling to London on business so she accompanied him. While in Europe she visited with many people and had it arranged to meet with Selina Hastings and King George III and Queen Charlotte. These meetings did not happen because Susannah had taken ill and Phillis was called back to Boston on July 26, 1773. While in London she was visited by Benjamin Franklin. He was afraid he insulted Nathaniel by visiting Phillis prior to visiting with him.
Phillis wheatley portrait 2

There is a lot of history in the poems of Phillis Wheatley. Although history records Crispus Attucks as the first martyr of the colonists' struggle for freedom, Phillis Wheatley's poem "On the Death of Mr. Snider Murder'd by Richardson" tells of a martyr who died before the Boston Massacre.  (Crispus Attucks was a slave and was the first shot during the Boston Massacre.) 

In September 1773, Phillis's book was published in London. It was published at least three more times in London and sold approximately 1,200 copies. Comments were made about the Wheatley family and Bostonians boasting about their "talented slave poet" but not giving her freedom. Shortly after her return to Boston the Wheatley family freed her. Then on March 3, 1774 Susannah died. She remained in the Wheatley household although Mary Wheatley was married and no longer there and Nathaniel remained in England where he married. 

While free it said that Phillis worked as a seamstress. As a free woman it must have been hard to think about what would happen after the Wheatleys died. John Wheatley died in 1778 and Mary (Wheatley) Lathrop died shortly after. Nathaniel had died five years prior in England. In April 1778, Phillis Wheatley married a free black man named John Peters. He ran a grocery store on Court Street, but it did not do well. 
Hazel as Phillis Wheatley for History Project

In 1779 the Peters left Boston and moved to Wilmington, Massachusetts. During the few years spent in Wilmington, Phillis did not communicate much with her friends so there are not many records left of this time.  In 1779 Phillis tried to have a second book of poetry published. She used Benjamin Franklin's name to try to help find a publisher, but sadly it did not help. She had three children with Peters. Two of them died as infants. 

After spending three years in Wilmington, Phillis moved back to Boston without her husband. She lived for six weeks with on of the Wheatley's nieces in a run-down house. Some say John Peters was in debtors' prison and others say he abandoned her and their child. Phillis took a job as a scrub maid to support herself and her child. Unfortunately she was not strong enough for this type of labor. Eventually John Peters reunites with Phillis in Boston and they move to an apartment. Her final years were spent in poverty and lonliness. Then in 1784 both Phillis and her third child became ill and both died on December 5, 1784. They are buried together in an unmarked grave in Boston. 

For even more on Phillis Wheatley see our post here


Aloian, Molly. Phillis Wheatley: Poet of the Revolutionary Era. Crabtree Publishing Company. Ontario. 2013

Cook, Robin S. Phillis Wheatley: Slave and Poet. Compass Point Books. Minneapolis. 2006. 

Editors of Biography. Phillis Wheatley. 

Malaspina, Ann. Phillis Sings Out Freedom. Albert Whitman & Company. Chicago. 2010.

McLendon, Jacquelyn. Phillis Wheatley: A Revolutionary Poet. The Rosen's Publishing Group. New York. 2003.