Author: Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley Image

Born in West Africa, Phillis Wheatley (1753?84) was brought in 1761 on a slave ship to Boston, where she was purchased by a Mr. Wheatley. As a young girl, she was discovered copying letters of the alphabet onto a wall with chalk. Rather than punish her, Wheatley’s owners allowed her to be tutored by their daughter and supported her education in English literature, Greek, Latin, and the Bible. In 1773, she traveled to London, where she became the first African American woman to publish a volume of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. After returning to Boston, Wheatley continued to write, and in 1776 she sent a poem to George Washington that was later published in the Pennsylvania Gazette. Wheatley was emancipated two years later when her master died, and shortly thereafter married a poor black grocer. Impoverished by 1784 and with her husband in debtors’ prison, Wheatley went to work as a scullery maid. She died later that year at age 31.

To His Excellency General Washington

Phillis Wheatley

This difficult poem, written in neoclassical style, is included in this collection partly because of the remarkable story of its author, partly to show how early the celebration of Washington began, and how widely he was admired.