- Wheatley, Phillis
- (c. 1753-1784)first published African-American woman poetPhillis Wheatley was born in West Africa, probably in what is now Gambia, and after being enslaved was transported to Boston, Massachusetts, and purchased in 1761 as a servant by John and susannah Wheatley. she was trained as a personal maid to Mrs. Wheatley and lived in the family residence.Encouraged by the Wheatleys, Phillis learned to read and write. Impressed by her comprehension of complicated Bible passages, the Wheatley's in 1770 sponsored Phyllis's membership in the Old South Church, soon to become a center of revolutionary activity. Wheatley had already written some of her many poems with Christian themes. For example, "To the University of Cambridge" called upon students to avoid sin and follow Christ. The year she joined the church she wrote a poem on the occasion of the death of evangelist George Whitefield. Her poems made her a local celebrity.In 1773, the Wheatleys freed Phillis and sent her to England in hopes of restoring her health. In England, she was received by the countess of Huntington, George Whitefield's patron. Phillis also had the opportunity to publish her book, Poems on Various Subjects: Religious and Moral. She returned to Massachusetts and worked for her former masters until their deaths in 1774 and 1778. She continued to write until close to her death, but a bad marriage and the need to work to support her children lessened her output. She died on December 5, 1784.Wheatley's works were later used by abolitionists to defend the idea of native talents and capabilities of black people. Her fame has waxed and waned, but she has most recently been rediscovered by spokespersons of womanist theology, a movement devoted to highlighting the voices of black women as they confront a racist and sexist community.Further reading:■ Shirley Graham, The Story of Phillis Wheatley (New York: J. Messmer, 1949, 1966)■ William Henry Robinson, Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982)■ Phillis Wheatley, The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley, ed. by John C. Shields (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.