It was common during the 1700s for African village chiefs to sell young children to slave traders who would send them on ships to the Americas. Phillis Wheatley, one of those children, later became a famous poet.
- Phillis Wheatley was born around 1753 in Gambia, Africa. She was sold from her village when she was only about seven years old and placed on a crowded, filthy boat bound for America.
- When the boat arrived, the girl was so thin and frail that the captain expected her to die soon. He sold her to a woman in Boston for almost nothing, happy to earn a little bit for his troubles.
- The girl was named Phillis after the boat she came on. Her last name, Wheatley, was the name of her masters.
- The Wheatleys quickly realized that Phillis was exceptionally bright. They taught her to read English, Latin, and Greek. She studied astronomy and geography.
- When she was fourteen, Phillis began writing poetry using a classical style.
- Wealthy aristocrats in New England loved Phillis and wanted to promote her as proof that African American slaves were intelligent, artistic, and creative when given the chance. But some people didn’t support the idea. The Wheatleys were unsuccessful in getting Phillis’s poetry published in New England.
- When she was 18 years old, Phillis traveled to England with the Wheatley’s son. There she met a wealthy friend of the family who helped get her book published. Phillis was the first woman in America to publish a book.
- Her poems were often about religion, death, and her African heritage.
- Phillis was freed shortly after her book was published, but freedom wasn’t all she had hoped for.
- She married a man named Peter and the couple had two babies who died soon after birth. Finding jobs was free blacks was hard and they were very poor. Peter was sent to debtor’s prison and Phillis was left to fend for herself as a scullery maid.
- She became very sick and weak and died alone in a small, dark, filthy room. Her infant son died soon after and was buried with her.
Questions and Answers
Question: Did Phillis write other books?
Answer: Phillis did write other poems but couldn’t find a publisher for them. George Washington and John Hanco-ck both supported her work. Nevertheless, she died a pauper’s death.
Watch a video about Phillis Wheatley.