Phillis Wheatley, born c. 1753 in West Africa, was the first published African-American female poet. Her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in 1773, brought her to the attention of people such as George Washington and poet Jupiter Hammon. Sadly, by the age of 31, she fell into poverty and died of illness on December 5, 1784.
The specific circumstances of Wheatley’s birth are unknown, but it is believed that she was born around 1753 in West Africa, possibly modern day Gambia or Senegal. At the approximate age of seven, she was enslaved and transported to colonial America, arriving in Boston on July 11, 1761 on a slave ship called The Phillis. A wealthy merchant and tailor, John Wheatley, bought her as a servant for his wife, Susanna, and they gave her the name Phillis Wheatley.
At some point, John and Susanna’s daughter, Mary, began to teach Phillis to read, assisted by her brother Nathaniel. They recognized her ability and eventually left her domestic duties to other slaves so that she could focus on her education. By the age of 12, she was not only reading the Bible, but also Greek and Latin classics. Influenced by such authors as Homer and Virgil, she began to write poetry by the age of 14.
In 1773, Phillis traveled to London with Nathaniel, hoping to publish a volume of her poetry. There she met various members of British society including the Lord Mayor of London and Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon, to whom the volume was dedicated. Over the next several years, she corresponded with people she met in Britain and the colonies, even visiting George Washington at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1776.
In 1778, John Wheatley died and in his will legally freed Phillis. A few months later she married John Peters, a grocer. Although she continued to write, the couple’s financial circumstances made it impossible for her to publish. In 1784, John was imprisoned for debt and Phillis was left with an infant to support. She took a job as a scullery maid, but fell ill and died later that year, on December 5, 1784. Her infant died only hours later.
You can find works by and about Phillis Wheatley at Internet Archives.
Find out what else happened on December 5 in Women’s History.