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Phillis Wheatley
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Phillis Wheatley

By The Gale Group – Wheatley was born in 1753 or 1754 in West Africa (present-day Senegal), kidnapped, and brought to New England in 1761. John Wheatley, a wealthy Boston merchant, bought her for his wife, Susanna, who wanted a youthful personal maid to serve her in her old age. Wheatley was frail and sickly, but her gentle, demure manner charmed Susanna. The child learned to read and write quickly and became proficient in Latin, so the Wheatleys assigned her only light housekeeping duties and encouraged her to study and write poetry. As a result, she achieved a high level of education rare for upper-class colonial men, let alone women or slaves. In fact, Wheatley was treated less like a servant and more like a member of the Wheatley family. She was given a private, well-heated room and a lamp to use at night. She was free to visit with the Wheatleys' friends but forbidden to associate with other slaves.

It is believed that Wheatley began writing in 1765. Her poem "An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of That Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield" gained her national and international attention when it was published locally in 1770 as a broadside pamphlet and then reprinted in newspapers throughout the American colonies and in England. Wheatley continued to write elegies and honorific verses to commemorate the lives of friends and famous contemporaries as well as poems to celebrate important events.

Wheatley was freed from slavery three months before Susanna Wheatley's death in March, 1774. She married John Peters on April 1, 1778. Peters was a free black man who worked as a lawyer and grocer, among other occupations, and was a writer and speaker. Peters eventually abandoned Wheatley and their three children, forcing Wheatley to work as a scullery maid in a rooming house. Two of her children died. Untrained for menial labor and physically frail, she died at the age of thirty-one on December 5, 1784. Her third child died within a few hours of Wheatley and was buried with her in an unmarked grave.

Reprinted by permission of The Gale Group.

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