20. Phillis Wheatley wrote poetry admired by many of the Founding Fathers
Kidnaped from her African home and sold into slavery in colonial Boston, Phillis learned to read and write from the family which enslaved her. She studied the Bible, the works of Virgil and Ovid, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and other classic literature. Estimated to have been around the age of 7 upon arrival, by the age of 18 she wrote poetry of her own. In 1770 she published An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield. It became known under the more manageable name of the Whitefield Elegy, and famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Unable to find publishers willing to promote works by Black authors in America, she went to London, accompanied by her owner’s son. There she published Poems Subjects, Religious and Moral. It was received with acclaim.
Phillis received emancipation on her return to America. She applied the name Columbia to America in her poetry in support of the Revolution, believed to be the first to do so. Wheatley corresponded with George Washington, dedicated a volume of poetry to Benjamin Franklin, and hailed the rebellion against Great Britain after her return to America. She has been called the poet-laureate of the American Revolution. Wheatley married a freeman, John Peters, and took his name in 1778. Peters lacked any form of gainful employment during most of their marriage, and was evidently in debtor’s prison at the time of her death in 1784. Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book in the United States, quickly fell into oblivion for decades.
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