Phillis Wheatley, America's First Published Black Poet

By Karen Harris
Phillis Wheatley, African-American author and poet. Engraved by Scipio Moorhead, 1773. (VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Phillis Wheatley lived a remarkable life full of triumph over adversity. She the first African-American poet to be published in the New World and the first black woman to become a household name in the fledgling United States, but she had to prove herself again and again, even in a court of law.

Becoming Phillis

Wheatley was only seven years old in 1761, when she was kidnapped from her home in Senegal, forced aboard the slave ship The Phillis, and sold to John Wheatley to be his wife's personal slave. They named her Phillis after the ship that carried her, and Little Phillis quickly learned English and acclimated to her new reality as a slave.

John and Susanna Wheatley valued education for all people and recognized Phillis's potential. They even spared her household chores so she could devote more time to her studies. Their daughter, Mary, became Phillis's first tutor, teaching her how to read and write. Phillis proved to be a brilliant student, mastering arithmetic, astronomy, Greek, and Latin, but where she shined the brightest was in poetry.

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