In honor of Black History Month this month, Newsweek magazine ran a web exclusive featuring an interview with Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., that I thought was excellent. In the interview, with regard to the month-long celebration, Professor Gates stated “I love Black History Month. But for me, every day is Black History Month, and I would like one day to see the need for Black History Month to disappear because the contributions of our ancestors have become a fundamental part of the American-history curriculum.” When Newsweek asked “What do you think of people who call for an end to Black History Month?”, Professor Gates replied “It depends on who is doing the asking. Their concerns are understandable if they feel Black History Month is ghettoizing. But these sorts of gestures are necessary to reclaim the past. Black History Month has been very effective in resurrecting the stories of our ancestors and in integrating those stories into our history. But we’re not even on the horizon of the time to end Black History Month. When as many Americans are as familiar with Harriet Tubman as they are with Paul Revere, then we can talk about ending Black History Month.” I couldn’t agree with Professor Gates more – and that’s coming from someone with a family connection to
The person I’d like to honor today for Black History Month is a little girl who at about the age of 7 was kidnapped from Africa by slave traders, along with about 80 other Africans, and put aboard the schooner Phillis. The ship landed at Griffin’s Wharf in Boston on July 11, 1761 and the girl was sold into slavery for a low price because of her frail condition. She was purchased by John Wheatley, a tailor and merchant, and his wife Susanna of Boston. Her original African name, unknown to historians today, was changed to “Phillis” when the Wheatley’s named her after the ship that had carried her to Boston. Phillis also took the last name of her new owners and lived with the Wheatley family in their home located on the corner of King Street and Mackerel Lane. From this location, Phillis Wheatley could clearly see the Town House (Old State House) which was just two blocks away. John and Susanna Wheatley had two children, 18-year-old twins Mary and Nathaniel, and with Susanna’s approval Mary began to teach Phillis to read and write. When Phillis wasn’t working as a servant, she continued her studies and proved to be a fast learner. In addition to English, Mary also tutored Phillis in Latin and the scriptures. Sixteen months after her arrival in Boston, Phillis Wheatley could read and write the English language and read even the most difficult Bible passages so well that those who witnessed it stood in disbelief. People thought that simply because Phillis was an African slave she could not accomplish this. How wrong they were – and this was just the beginning of young Phillis Wheatley’s achievements.
Phillis showed an interest in writing poetry and produced her first poem at the age of eleven. As she was very religious, “many of her poems were about God or about the various ministers she heard on Sundays. She liked to write ‘elegies’ – poems that praised people who had died. This kind of poem was very popular during the Colonial era.” I learned this from an excellent new product for schools called “Phillis Wheatley – A Guide for Teachers” produced by the Old South Meeting House and available at their Museum Shop. (Phillis attended church at Old South Meeting House and became a full member when she was 17.) Susanna Wheatley, impressed by Phillis’s poetry, made an effort to get her work published in book form in Boston and when she found no success in this endeavor, sought out and obtained a publisher in England. The printer was concerned that people would not believe that Phillis had actually written the poems unless there was something attesting to that fact. A group of eighteen prominent Boston leaders were chosen to quiz Phillis on her knowledge and she passed this challenging test with flying colors. The men signed a document that would appear at the front of Phillis Wheatley’s book stating that they believed she was qualified to write it.
The May 1773 issue of London’s Gentleman’s Magazine contained an article about Phillis Wheatley mentioning that proposals have just been published for printing, by subscription, some of her poems. This original article is part of my collection of early colonial newspapers. For a closer view of this primary source document: View Phillis Wheatley Article Part I and Phillis Wheatley Article Part 2. The poor health Phillis experienced as a child followed her into adulthood. The Wheatley family sent her on a trip to London in May 1773 with their son Nathaniel to oversee the publication of her book and in hopes that the voyage might improve Phillis’s health. Newspapers in Massachusetts and many of the other colonies mentioned their trip. The May 17, 1773 issue of the Pennsylvania Chronicle noted “The Ship London, Capt. Calef, sails on Saturday for London, in whom goes passengers Mr. Nathaniel Wheatley, Merchant; also, Phillis, Servant to Mr. Wheatley, the extraordinary Negro Poetress, at the invitation of the Countess of Huntington.” Phillis was treated like a celebrity in London and she had the opportunity to meet the Earl of Dartmouth and Benjamin Franklin. Plans to meet other dignitaries were cancelled when news arrived that Susanna Wheatley was seriously ill and Nathaniel and Phillis quickly sailed for Boston. After her departure, Phillis Wheatley’s book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was printed in London.
When Phillis returned from her trip, John and Susanna Wheatley freed her and she continued to live with them. Susanna Wheatley died in March of 1774 and Phillis, wrote about their relationship noting how close they had become and that Mrs.Wheatley had treated her more like her own child than her servant. The vast majority of slaves were not nearly as fortunate. Earlier that year, no doubt thinking of them, Phillis spoke out against slavery in a letter to Reverend Samson Occum. She penned “… in every human Breast God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance… the same principle lives in us.” In 1776, at the beginning of the American Revolution, Phillis wrote a poem about General George Washington who she greatly admired and sent the poem and a letter to General Washington at his headquarters in Cambridge. Washington recognized Phillis’s great talent and responded favorably to her poem and letter, even inviting her to visit him in Cambridge – a trip she is believed to have made.
In 1778, Phillis’s childhood tutor Mary Wheatley and her father John Wheatley died and Mary’s twin Nathaniel was living overseas in England. That same year Phillis married a free black Bostonian named John Peters. Work was tough to find for freed blacks and they lived in poor conditions. Phillis wrote a second book of poetry but was unable to find a publisher. She wished to dedicate the volume to Benjamin Franklin. Her last published poem called “Liberty and Peace” was produced in 1784. By that time two of her infant children had died and Phillis was sick and doing her best to care for a young baby. Phillis died on December 5, 1784 at about the age of 30 and her baby passed away a short time later. They are buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Boston. Although we cannot pay tribute to Phillis Wheatley at a gravesite, there is another place where we can honor her memory. The next time you visit the famous Old South Meeting House, the place where Phillis Wheatley worshipped, instead of thinking of only Samuel Adams, the Sons of Liberty and the Boston Tea Party, take a seat, close your eyes and feel the presence of a truly remarkable African American woman. Listen closely and in your unbounded imagination you might even hear a verse or two from one of her masterful poems like my favorite “On Imagination“.
Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.
Through my friends at Old South Meeting House, I became aware of Dorothy Mains Prince and her remarkable portrayal of African American poet Phillis Wheatley. Old South, where Wheatley worshipped, is the only surviving historic site in Boston connected with Phillis Wheatley and her amazing life. Besides performances at Old South Meeting House in recent years, Prince has also brought Phillis Wheatley to life through a 32-minute DVD titled Make Her Black … and Bid Her Sing and a companion study guide. Both products teach viewers/readers about Phillis Wheatley from the moment she arrived in Boston and was sold into salvery to her incredible achievements as a poet and the first African American author to publish a book of poetry. The DVD and study guide can be purchased from the Old South Meeting House museum shop or from Dorothy Mains Prince at her website DorothyPrince.com. The DVD and companion study guide get my highest praise.
For those interested in learning more about the life of Phillis Wheatley, the Massachusetts Historical Society has an outstanding Phillis Wheatley section in their online exhibit African Americans and the End of Slavery in Massachusetts. Here you can view the desk that Phillis wrote her book of poetry on and see letters and poems written in her own hand along with transcriptions.