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Home > History > Phillis Wheatley Biography

Phillis Wheatley Biography

This is a full biography on Revolutionary poet Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley

Early Life

Phillis Wheatley was born in Gambia on May 8, 1753. When she was 7 or 8, she was sold as a slave to John and Susanna Wheatley of Boston. She was named after the ship that brought her to America, the Phillis. The Poetry Foundation describes her sale below:

In August 1761:

"in want of a domestic," Susanna Wheatley, ... purchased "a slender, frail female child ... for a trifle"... The captain of the slave ship believed that the waif was terminally ill, and he wanted ... at least a small profit before she died. ...The family surmised the girl - who was "of slender frame and evidently suffering from a change of climate," nearly naked, with "no other covering than a quantity of dirty carpet about her" - to be "about seven years old ... from the circumstances of shedding her front teeth." (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/phillis-wheatley)

The 12 Year-old Poet

Phillis was very intelligent. The Wheatley family taught her to read and write, and encouraged her to write poetry. Her first poem "On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin" was published when she was only twelve. In 1770, An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of that Celebrated Divine, and Eminent Servant of Jesus Christ, the Reverend and Learned George Whitefield made her famous. It was published in Boston, Newport, and Philadelphia.

Short-lived Fame

When she was eighteen, Phillis and Mrs. Wheatley tried to sell a collection containing twenty-eight of her poems. Colonists did not want to buy poetry written by an African. Mrs. Wheatley wrote to England to ask Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, for help. The countess was a wealthy supporter of evangelical and abolitionist (anti-slavery) causes. She had Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral published in England in 1773. This book made Phillis famous in England and the thirteen colonies. In 1775, Phillis wrote a poem for George Washington, who praised her work. They met in 1776. Phillis supported independence for the colonies during the Revolutionary War.She became the first African American and the first slave in the United States to publish a book.

Phillis Wheatley Book of Poems

Phillis Wheatley's Work

A Short Life

After her master died, Phillis was emancipated (freed). She married John Peters, a free black man, in 1778. She and her husband lost two children as infants. John would be imprisoned for debt in 1784. Phillis, who suffered from respiratory ailments for most of her life, died in December of 1784, and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Phillis Wheatley Activities (Grades 5-8)

  • Reading Comprehension Printable - This resource includes a historical passage and ten multiple choice questions.
  • Reading Comprehension Online - This resource includes a historical passage and ten multiple choice questions. It gives immediate feedback and a score report.
  • Fact or Fiction - This fun activity requires students to read a Phillis Wheatley passage and then, to sort 11 statements into those that are facts and those that are fiction. It gives immediate feedback.
  • Fact or Fiction - This fun activity requires students to read a Phillis Wheatley passage and then, to sort 11 statements into those that are facts and those that are fiction.
  • Main Idea and Supporting Details - This activity requires students to group supporting detail sentences under one of three different main ideas. There are seven total sentences.
  • Primary Source Analysis: Washington's Letter to Phillis Wheatley - This activity requires students to analyze a letter from Washington to Phillis Wheatley and to complete short answer questions about it.
  • Primary Source Analysis: Wheatley's Poem to King George III - This activity requires students to analyze the poem: To the King's Most Excellent Majesty 1768 written by Phillis Wheatley to King George III. The poem was meant to praise him for repealing the Stamp Act. Students must complete short answer questions about the poem.
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