Wheatley Family Home (State St. & Kilby St.)

Map image courtesy of Norma B.  Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library

 

While little is known about Phillis’ life as a child in West Africa, scholars do know of her experience at the Wheatley family house on the corner of King Street and Mackerel Street (now State Street and Kilby Street), from 1761 to 1774. It is here where Phillis Wheatley served as a house slave and where she learned to read and write. As a house slave, Phillis developed an intimate relationship with her owner Susannah Wheatley. Mrs. Wheatley considered Phillis a daughter figure and allowed her to manage her own time and rate of work. Unlike most slaves, she had the ability to choose how to spend her own free time, which she spent writing poetry and corresponding with friends, both slave and free.

The Wheatleys used their house to showcase Phillis Wheatley’s intellectual skills. They encouraged and supported Phillis to correspond with their acquaintances, leading clergymen and intellectuals. Scholars have argued that the Wheatley’s encouragement was a form of exploitation, since they gained socially and financially from Phillis’ intelligence. They also note that the family’s recognition of her intellectual gifts and talent meant that they promoted her education and advancement as a lady and African American poetess. Indeed, Phillis could be understood as an object of entertainment during many Wheatley social events. Performing as somewhat of a spectacle, she would recite the most sophisticated Biblical passages with ease, capturing the attention of her white audience and challenging their misconceptions of African savagery. She produced personal reflections and poetry that were steeped in classical and religious themes, reflecting her education and upbringing in New England.

Many scholars attribute Phillis Wheatley’s destitution as a free African American to the severing of familial connections following Mrs. Wheatley’s death.  However, private correspondence show that her relationship with Mary Wheatley, Susannah’s daughter, and Mary’s husband, Reverend John Lathrop, was maintained well after the demise of Mrs. Susannah Wheatley.  During the British occupation of Boston, Phillis travelled to Providence with the Lathrops, staying in the care of her close friends. When the Lathrops returned to Boston, Phillis relocated to the Wheatley home. She, then, moved with John Peters, and married him shortly thereafter. Phillis and John’s home was within a few blocks from the Wheatley family’s home. The Wheatley home no longer exists but its memory still serves as a memorial to Phillis Wheatley’s life as a slave and beginnings as an African American poetess.

Dear Obour,

I recd. your obliging Letter, enclosd, in your revd. Pastor’s & handed me by his Son. I have lately met with a great trial in the death of my mistress, let us imagine the loss of a Parent, Sister or Brother the tender ness of all these were united, in her, — I was a poor little outcast& stranger when she took me in, not only into her house but I pre sently became, a sharer in her most tender affections, I was treated by her more like her child than her servant, no opportunity was left unim prov’d, of giving me the best of advice, but in terms how tender! how engaging! this I hope ever to keep in remembrance. Her exampla ry life was a greater monitor than all her precepts and Instructions thus we may observe of how much greater force example is than Instruction. To alleviate our sorrows we had the satisfaction to see her depart in inexpressible raptures, earnest longings & impatient thirstings for the upper Courts of the Lord. Do, my dear friend, remem ber me & this family in your Closet that this afflicting dispensation — may be sanctify’d to us. I am very sorry to hear that you are indisposd but hope this will find you in better health; I have been unwell the greater Part of the winter, but am much better as the Spring approaches Pray excuse my not writing to you so long before, for I have been so bu sy lately, that I could not find liezure [leisure]. I shall send the 5 Books you wrote for, the first convenient, Opportunity. if you want more, they Shall be ready for you I am very affectionately your Friend

Phillis Wheatley

Boston March 21. 1774

(Letter from Phillis Wheatley to dear friend from Rhode Island, Obour Tanner, in which Phillis mourns her previous master’s death)

 

 

References

Carretta, Vincent, ed. Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English Speakign World of the 18th Century. Expanded ed. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.

Foster, “‘Sometimes by Simile, a Victory’s,” in Written By Herself Literary, 32.

Massachusetts Historical Society, ed. “Letter from Phillis Wheatley to Obour      Tanner, 21 March 1774.” Last modified 2016. Accessed March 18, 2016. http://www.masshist.org/database/  viewer.php item_id=775&img_step=1&br=1&mode=transcript#page1.

Memorial Hall Museum Online, ed. “African Americans : Slavery in New England.”
American Centuries…view from New England. Last modified 2014. Accessed
March 8, 2016. http://www.americancenturies.mass.edu/turns/
view.jsp?itemid=13155&subthemeid=16.