In 1761, the ship, Phillis, carried a cargo of West African men, women, and children to British-ruled Boston, Massachusetts. Bostonians learned of the cargo through a Boston Gazette and Country Journal advertisement that publicized the importation of “prime young SLAVES,” including, a “hearty male Negro Child about a Month old,” who was available to be given away. Though not noted, part of that cargo included an eight-year old girl. John Wheatley bought this girl for his wife, Susannah, and named her Phillis, after the ship that brought her to Boston.
The Wheatley family’s progressive views on African and Indian literacy enabled Phillis to learn how to read and write. Her love of literature led her to write poetry and at the age 14, she published her first poem in Newport, Rhode Island. Though brilliant and articulate, Phillis was still a slave. She wrote and recited poetry for the benefit of the Wheatley family and the money she earned went to the Wheatley estate. Phillis did gain her freedom in 1778, five years before Massachusetts banned slavery, but her life as a freed woman became emblematic of the experiences of freed people of color in the early republic. Though she was able to marry a free black grocer, John Peters, she struggled to make a living as a poetess.
In many ways, Phillis’s story is both unique and ordinary. Not many African slaves left written records of their experiences in the colonies, and even less had the opportunity to become published poets. Phillis story, however, reveals the inequality that African slaves faced in colonial America. Slavery was a widespread reality in the British colonies, from Massachusetts down to Georgia. This legal and economic system served to bolster the social and economic power of the colonies’ elites. In the case of Phillis Wheatley, slavery meant having access to a literary world that highlighted her talent but benefited her masters. This inequality became most apparent when she attempted and failed to publish her poetry as a freed woman. She had little recourse but to clean homes in order to survive.
She died at the age of 31, in 1784.
Phillis Wheatley spent most of her life in Boston. Boston served both as her home and as a place that formalized her sense of identity as a poet and African American woman. To better grasp her lived experience in Boston, this digital tour examines ten historic sites that exemplify different, yet important, moments in Phillis’ life. These sites give viewers a glimpse into Phillis Wheatley’s religious affiliation and moral attitudes, her life with the Wheatley family, her association to Boston’s literary community, and her relationship to other African Americans in the New England area. Some of these sites were preserved, though not because of their affiliation with Phillis, while the remnants of others exist only in historic maps, letters, and poems. Nonetheless, all ten sites serve as critical markers of historical moments, helping us experience Boston through Wheatley’s eyes.