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WHEATLEY, Phillis

Born: Circa 1753, in Senegal, West Africa

Died: December 5, 1784, in Boston, Massachusetts, United States

In 1761 Phillis Wheatley was sold from a slave ship in Boston to labor for the family of a Boston merchant named John Wheatley. She was granted unusual privileges for a slave once the Wheatleys recognized her special abilities.

Phillis was educated by the family to read and write. In a short time she had learned English and was writing poetry by the age of fourteen. She eventually went on to read Greek and Latin. In 1770 An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of a Celebrated Divine...George Whitefield, her first published work, received much recognition.

Shortly after this work was published, Wheatley visited England where she was warmly accepted by London society. With the support of the Countess Huntingdon, her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in 1773 in England, promoting her reputation in Europe as well as in America. Wheatley gained more notoriety when a poem dedicated to George Washington was published in 1776.

Phillis was manumitted in 1771 after the death of Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley. She then married John Peters, a free black man. A failure in business, Peters was unable to support Phillis and their three children. All three died as infants. She lived the rest of her life alone and in poverty working as a servant in Boston.

Phillis Wheatley is the first acclaimed African American woman poet in the United States. Abolitionists reissued her poems in the 1830s to demonstrate the human potential of African Americans. Later collections of her work include Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, published in 1834, and The Letters of Phillis Wheatley, The Negro-Slave Poet of Boston, published in 1864.