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Phillis Wheatley Biography | Poet

Photo of Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley is a name that may not be familiar to many, but her story is one of resilience, talent, and triumph. Born in West Africa in the 1750s, Wheatley was kidnapped and sold into slavery at the young age of seven. Despite the challenges she faced, she went on to become the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry and became a prominent figure in the literary world. In this article, we will explore the remarkable life of Phillis Wheatley and her enduring legacy.

Early Life and Enslavement

Phillis Wheatley was born in Senegal, West Africa, in the 1750s. At the age of seven, she was kidnapped and brought to Boston, Massachusetts, where she was sold into slavery to the Wheatley family. The Wheatleys were a prominent family in Boston, and they named her Phillis after the ship that brought her to America.

Despite being enslaved, Wheatley was fortunate to be in a household that valued education. The family decided to educate her after observing her brilliancy. She was given every type of support she needed by the Wheatley family who also adopted her as their daughter. She made good use of the opportunity to demonstrate her superior writing skills. She was taught to read and write by the Wheatley family's children, and she quickly excelled in her studies. By the age of 12, she was reading Greek and Latin classics and writing her own poetry.

Works of such people like Virgil, Horace, Hommer, John Milton, as well as Pope Alexander influenced her. Because of the education and support by the Wheatley family, she was able to master Latin as well as Greek languages. She started to write poems and was so intelligent that her first work was published when she was just twelve years. She wrote several poems, which were published in different journals then. Her later works, covering various subjects such as religion and morals, gained notoriety and were published in the year 1793.

Literary Achievements

Wheatley's talent for poetry was evident from a young age, and she began to write and publish her work while still enslaved. In 1773, at the age of 20, she published her first book of poetry, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral." Her mistress Susanna Wheatley financed the book. In part, this book was significant because 17 Boston men had to endorse the work before it was actually published by the author. This made her the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry and one of the first African American women to publish a book in America.

Her book was well-received, and she gained recognition from prominent figures such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. She was also invited to meet with the Countess of Huntingdon, a prominent supporter of the arts, in London. This trip to England gave Wheatley the opportunity to publish a second book of poetry, "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," in 1774.

Legacy and Impact

Phillis Wheatley's literary achievements were groundbreaking for an African American woman in the 18th century. Her success challenged the prevailing beliefs about the intellectual capabilities of enslaved people and paved the way for future African American writers.

Wheatley's poetry also had a significant impact on the abolitionist movement. Her poems often addressed themes of freedom and equality, and her success as a writer served as a powerful argument against the idea of African Americans being inferior to white people.

She was legally freed from slavery through her masters will and subsequently got married to John Peters, another freed slave of that era, turned grocer. Phillis and John struggled with poverty and the death of their two babies. John was imprisoned for debt in the year 1784 and Phillis was forced into menial labor to sustain herself and her infant son. She died in December 5 1784.

The Phillis Wheatley Community Library

In 1914, the city of Washington D.C. opened the Phillis Wheatley Community Library in honor of the poet. The library was the first public library in the United States to be named after an African American woman. It served as a hub for the African American community and provided access to books and resources that were not readily available to them.

The library was a symbol of hope and progress for the African American community, and it played a crucial role in promoting literacy and education. It also served as a gathering place for community events and meetings, making it a vital part of the community.

The Legacy Continues

Today, the Phillis Wheatley Community Library continues to serve the community and honor the legacy of its namesake. The library offers a wide range of resources and programs, including book clubs, computer classes, and children's storytime. It also hosts events that celebrate African American culture and history, keeping Wheatley's legacy alive.

In addition to the community library, there are several other institutions and organizations named after Phillis Wheatley, including schools, scholarships, and literary awards. Her legacy continues to inspire and empower future generations, and her impact on the literary world and the fight for equality is immeasurable.


Phillis Wheatley's story is one of resilience, talent, and triumph. Despite being born into slavery, she defied the odds and became a prominent figure in the literary world. Her poetry challenged societal beliefs and paved the way for future African American writers. The Phillis Wheatley Community Library stands as a testament to her enduring legacy and serves as a reminder of the power of education and literature. As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, let us remember and honor the remarkable life of Phillis Wheatley.

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