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Phillis Wheatley
Stories of inspiration from Smart Girl Stories across the globe. Phillis Wheatley: An Extraordinary Trailblazer and Poet

Phillis Wheatley: An Extraordinary Trailblazer and Poet

Phillis Wheatley was an American poet and trailblazer. She was the first African-American woman and the second woman ever to publish a book of poems, achieving what many thought to be impossible at the time.

Her impressive accomplishments were groundbreaking in the world of literature and inspire young women everywhere. Phillis Wheatley demonstrated how far hard work, dedication, and passion can take you – no matter your gender or background. Even centuries later, Phillis Wheatley remains a source of admiration and courage for women striving for greatness in various fields.

Early Life

Phillis was born in Gambia, Africa, in 1753. She was captured by slave catchers at a young age and brought to the United States in 1761. Post-arrival, she was sold to the Wheatley family of Boston, Massachusetts. Her first name, Phillis, came from the name of the slave ship that she arrived on, called “the Phillis.”

The Wheatley family educated her well, unlike most slave families. Within sixteen months of living in America, Phillis had the ability to read the bible, classic Greek and Latin stories, and English literature.

In addition to learning how to read and write, she also studied geography and astronomy. She began to write poetry at age fourteen and published her first poem in 1767. In 1770, one of her other poems, called “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine George Whitefield,” brought her great publicity.

Her First Publication

With the financial support of the English Countess of Huntingdon, in 1773, Phillis journeyed to London. She published her first collection of poems, the first book written by an African-American woman, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The book had a forward John Hancock and other prominent Bostonians signed that. 

Her poems were mainly reflections of lessons that she had learned in religion and the influences that other poets and mentors had made on her. Her work was symbiotic. It brought all people together to read and appreciate her work. Protestants traveled to the U.S. and England to read what she had written. Both abolitionists and enslavers read her poems. Her work was proof of the intellectual capabilities of people of color, to the world. 

Addressing Slavery

She also used her abilities to help the abolitionist movement. She would write to priests, ministers, and other influential people involved in the American revolution on the issue of slavery. She strongly supported the patriots in the revolution and wrote a well-respected poem on George Washington and his appointment to the commander of the Continental Army during the peak of her writing career. However, she believed that slavery was a principal issue for the colonists achieving true gallantry and heroism.

A Trailblazer For People Of Color

She married John Peters, a free man from Boston, in 1778. Together, they had three children, though none of them survived. Her attempts to publish a second book of poems were unsuccessful, so she had to work as a scrubwoman in a boarding house to support her family, but she still kept writing. She, unfortunately, passed away in 1784 due to complications with childbirth, but her legacy lives on making important contributions to American literature and helping the cause of abolition by showing the importance of people of color benefitting from having an education. She was a true trailblazer of her time, and today she is featured as one of our Smart Girls!

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Founder, Smart Girl, Survivor, Champion of womens rights and kids rights


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