Phillis Wheatley

ca. 1753-1784
Edited by Debra Michals, PhD | 2015, Edited by Rebecca Ljungren, Education Programs Manager, 2023

 Phillis Wheatley Peters is broadly recognized as the first African American woman and only the third American woman to publish a book of poems. Her works continues to be studied by historians, and her legacy has inspired generations of writers.

Born around 1753 in Gambia, Africa, Wheatley was captured by enslavers and brought to America in 1761. Upon arrival, she was sold to the Wheatley family in Boston, Massachusetts. Her first name Phillis was derived from the ship that brought her to America, “the Phillis.”

The Wheatley family educated her and within sixteen months of her arrival in America she could read the Bible, Greek and Latin classics, and British literature. She also studied astronomy and geography. In her early teenage years, Wheatley began to write poetry, publishing her first poem in 1767. Publication of “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine George Whitefield” in 1770 brought her great notoriety. In 1773, with financial support from the English Countess of Huntingdon, Wheatley traveled to London with the Wheatley's son to publish her first collection of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral—the first book written by an enslaved Black woman in America. It included a forward, signed by John Hancock and other Boston notables—as well as a portrait of Wheatley—all designed to prove that the work was indeed written by a Black woman. She was emancipated shortly thereafter.

Wheatley’s poems reflected several influences on her life, among them the well-known poets she studied, such as Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray. Pride in her African heritage was also evident. Her writing style embraced the elegy, likely from her African roots, where it was the role of girls to sing and perform funeral dirges. Religion was also a key influence, and it led Protestants in America and England to enjoy her work. Enslavers and abolitionists both read her work; the former to convince the enslaved population to convert, the latter as proof of the intellectual abilities of people of color. 

Although she supported the American Revolution, she believed that slavery was the issue that prevented the colonists from achieving true heroism. She wrote several letters to ministers and others on liberty and freedom. During the peak of her writing career, she wrote a well-received poem praising the appointment of George Washington as the commander of the Continental Army.

In 1778, Wheatley married John Peters, a free Black man from Boston with whom she had three children, though none survived. Efforts to publish a second book of poems failed. To support her family, she worked as a maid in a boardinghouse while continuing to write poetry. Wheatley became ill and died on December 5th, 1784.

Wheatley's poems continue to be studied by scholars to this day, and many institutions have honored her legacy, such as the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, DC.