Early African-American Poets

Why was Phillis Wheatley important?

In 1773 Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–1784), born on the west coast of Africa, published the first book of poetry by a black person in America (and the second published by a woman). Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London, England. A Boston merchant, John Wheatley, had bought Phillis as a child of about seven or eight, and had allowed her to learn to read and write. Wheatley’s first published poem, “On the Death of the Reverend George Whitefield,” appeared in 1770 in a Boston broadside. In 1773 she traveled abroad with the Wheatley’s son, partly in the hope of restoring her health with exposure to sea air, and she attracted considerable attention in England as a poet. It was at about this time that she was freed. Deaths had ended the connection with the Wheatley family by 1788, when she married a freeman, John Peters. Her first two children died, and at the end of her life she worked as a maid in a boarding house to support herself. She died in December, followed the same day by her third child, an infant.


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