Birth:  1753 (Gambia, Africa)

Death: 1784 (Boston, Massachusetts)

Historical Role/Pertinence: Poet & Activist

Phillis Wheatley Peters was the first Black woman to publish a collection of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral at the young age of twenty in 1773. Born in Gambia, West Africa, Phillis Wheately Peters was kidnapped from her home and brought to America at eight years old in 1761. Susannah Wheatley bought Phillis and enslaved her (naming her Phillis after the slave ship that brought her to Boston) because Susannah was “in need of  domestic [servitude].” 1 Noticing the intelligence of Phillis Wheatley Peters, the Wheatleys educated her with a classical education (which encompassed Greek and Latin classics among British literature). Much of these poetic forms and classical resonances are emulated through her work today alongside abolitionist ideologies and the purposeful use of “biblical symbolism to evangelize and to comment on slavery.”2

Wheatley Peters published her first poem, "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin" in the Newport Mercury at the age of 14 and continued to work on her poetry until her death.3 The authorship of Phillis Wheatley Peters' work was under question. White colonizers could not believe an enslaved woman could write in this way, so on October 8, 1772 a group of “reputable” men gathered and essentially verified her authorship.4 Even with this support, Wheatley-Peters was unable to find subscribers (a person who pays for the book  to be made) for her first book of poems in America, which brought her to London, where she found Selina Hastings – a friend of Susannah Wheately– who ended up funding the production of her book,  Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.5

Wheatley Peters was freed from enslavement in 1774 – the same year Susannha Wheatley passed away.6 A couple years later, Wheatley-Peters fell in love with and  married John Peters, a Black lawyer and grocer in 1778.7 Yet,  she continued to struggle to find support for her second collection of poems, despite her growing popularity and reputation. Phillis Wheately Peters died on December 5, 1784 and has since left a lasting legacy on the world of poetry and social justice advocacy.

Associated Exhibits

Many 19th-century Black public figures used Christian spirituality to promote racial uplift. This exhibit explores the actions and rhetoric of various Black Christian speakers.

Illustrates Chloe Russel's success as a female entrepreneur in 19th-century Boston. Despite economic challenges and discrimination, Russel defied societal constraints, reflecting the resilience of Black women during that era.

Explores the significance of slave narratives in the abolitionist movement of the 19th century. It compares the different rhetorical approaches of Chloe Russell and David Walker regarding domesticity and marriage. These narratives reflect different approaches to empowerment and resistance against white oppression.

Endnotes

1 “Phillis Wheatley,” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/phillis-wheatley#poet

2 Ibid

3 Sheridan, Stephanie. “Phillis Wheatley: Her Life, Poetry, and Legacy,” National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian, March 27, 2014, https://npg.si.edu/blog/phillis-wheatley-her-life-poetry-and-legacy

4 Mosvick, Nicholas. “Forgotten Founders: Phillis Wheatley, African-American Poet of the Revolution,” National Constitution Center, February 17, 2022, https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/forgotten-founders-phillis-wheatley-african-american-poet-of-the-revolution

5 Sheridan, “Phillis Wheatley: Her Life, Poetry, and Legacy,”

6 Wrinkler, Elizabeth. ”How Phillis Wheatley Was Recovered Through History,” The New Yorker, July 20, 2022 https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/how-phillis-wheatley-was-recovered-through-history

7  Mosvick, “Forgotten Founders: Phillis Wheatley, African-American Poet of the Revolution,”

Works Cited

Lemercier, Bernard et Cie. “Phillis Wheatley.” Revue des Colonies, January 1837. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k9992741/f16.item#

Mosvick, Nicholas. “Forgotten Founders: Phillis Wheatley, African-American Poet of the Revolution.”

National Constitution Center, February 17, 2022. https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/forgotten-founders-phillis-wheatley-african-american poet-of-the-revolution

“Philis Wheatley.” National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1773. https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.77.2

“Phillis Wheatley.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/phillis-wheatley#poet

Sheridan, Stephanie. “Phillis Wheatley: Her Life, Poetry, and Legacy.” National Portrait Gallery,

Smithsonian, March 27, 2014. https://npg.si.edu/blog/phillis-wheatley-her-life-poetry-and-legacy

Wrinkler, Elizabeth. ”How Phillis Wheatley Was Recovered Through History.” New Yorker, July 20, 2022. https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/how-phillis-wheatley-was-recovered-through-history