On July 11, 1761, a slave ship named the Phillis sailed into Boston harbor bearing a young girl of about 8 years among its cargo of West Africans.
Wealthy merchant John Wheatley had bought the girl for his wife and named her Phillis, after the slaver who ripped her from her homeland and brought her to the British colonies in the New World.
Progressive in views, Wheatley sought to provide Phillis, who took her owner’s last name, with a complete education. By age 12, the girl was reading Greek and Latin classics, and by the time she was 14, she was writing poetry.
Her first volume was published in 1773, bringing Wheatley fame, if not freedom, in the colonies and Britain.
George Washington, owner of slaves, praised Wheatley’s work, and in 1775, she sent him a copy of a poem titled “To His Excellency, George Washington.” He invited her to visit him at his headquarters in Cambridge.
The Museum of the American Revolution has an autographed first edition of Wheatley’s 1773 volume Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, the first volume of poetry published by an African American.