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Highlights
Phillis Wheatley: The Pioneering Voice of African American Poetry

In celebration of National Poetry Month, Documenting the American South highlights the legacy of Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), the first African American and the first enslaved poet to publish a volume of works.

Wheatley was kidnapped from Africa and brought to Boston aboard a slave ship when she was approximately seven years old. The Wheatley family purchased her to work as a domestic servant; however, she was kept from this station by battles with ill health and by the family's desire that she pursue her studies, for which she showed an early and profound proficiency. Her first book of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in England in 1773. The Wheatleys then emancipated her. Five years later, she married a free black man and lived the rest of her life in poverty. She tried unsuccessfully to sell a second manuscript, which has never been recovered. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was not printed in the United States until 1786.

Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave. Dedicated to the Friends of the Africans, originally published in 1834, includes a biographical sketch of Wheatley in addition to a collection of her most well-known verses. A more extensive biography, Memoir of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave by Benjamin B. Thatcher, was also published in 1834. Both works are part of DocSouth's North American Slave Narratives digital collection, which collects books and articles that document the individual and collective story of African Americans struggling for freedom and human rights in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries.

Jennifer L. Larson