Phillis Wheatley was a remarkable Afro-American woman who began her life in 1753 in Senegal, Africa. Before she was even ten years old, she was stolen from her parents and sold into slavery. She was frail and sickly and not strong child, but sold just the same.
Fortunately for her, though, she was bought by a well-to-do couple by the name of John and Susanna Wheatley of Massachusetts. Phillis was supposed to be Susanna's personal maid. It was not too long before Susanna Wheatley realized that the black slave girl was intelligent and could learn quickly. So, she allowed one of her children, a daughter named Mary, to tutor Phillis. She not only quickly learned English, but also Latin too. Their reading sessions also included the Bible too.
Good fortune smiled again on Phillis Wheatley when her owners, who treated her more like family than the slave that she was, gave her only light chores to do. They instead encouraged Phillis to use her free time to study and write poetry. And study and write she did. Phillis ended up acquiring a higher level of education than some white men did in those times.
Finally, her first published poem titled, "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin" appeared in the Newport Mercury Newspaper in 1767 when Phillis was just fourteen years old. That would have been quite a feat for any teenager to achieve, but was especially a monumental honor for a black slave girl to achieve.
Phillis continued on to write more poems, and in 1772, she tried to publish her first volume of poetry without success. The publishers were skeptical that readers would beleive the poems were actually written by a young black slave. Fortunately, a countess who had read and liked Phillis' poems arranged to have her first book published the next year. So, in 1773, Phillis' book titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published. Phillis became the first black as well as the first black woman to ever publish a book.
Time went on, and Phillis Wheatley continued to write her beloved poetry.In 1774 she was released from slavery by Susanna Wheatley just a few months before Mrs. Wheatley died.
In 1778, Phillis married a black man who was also free. His name was John Peters. He worked at a variety of jobs, including being a grocer and a public speaker. During the same year, Phillis tried to get a second collection of poetry published, but failed at doing so. The publicity from her first book had long passed, and the country was concentrating on the war effort instead of cultural affairs.
Peters ended up abandoning Phillis and their two young children, and she found herself working as a maid in Boston. Tragically, her two children died when they were quite young. Phillis died during childbirth for her third child in 1784when she was just thirty-one years old. At the time of her death, she was penniless. She and her baby were buried in pauper's graves.
Today, however, the name of Phillis Wheatley still lives on in the annals of history as being the first Afro-American poet to have ever published a book. In her case, it was a collection of poetry that was skillfully conceived through her hard work and determination to learn.