September 1, 1773, saw the publication of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral
, the first volume of poetry by an African American poet.
Born in Senegal, West Africa, Phillis Wheatley was sold into slavery around age seven, taken to Boston, and purchased off a slave ship by John Wheatley, a wealthy merchant. The Wheatley family taught her to read and write, and by age fourteen she began composing poetry. Most Bostonians found it hard to believe that a young slave girl could produce such lyrics, but a group of the city’s most notable citizens, including John Hancock, gave her an oral examination and signed a letter “To the Publick” attesting to her authorship.
No Boston publisher would print her work, so admirers arranged for publication in London. Freed by the Wheatleys, Phillis sailed for a visit to England, where the Lord Mayor of London welcomed her. Her reputation spread both in Europe and at home.
In 1776, her poem “To His Excellency George Washington,” honoring Washington’s appointment as commander in chief of the Continental Army, earned her more praise and the thanks of Washington himself. Throughout her verses, Wheatley celebrated the ideals for which the young republic stood.
||Auspicious Heaven shall fill with fav’ring Gales,
Where e’er Columbia spreads her swelling sails:
To every Realm shall Peace her Charms display,
And Heavenly Freedom spread her golden Ray.
Wheatley was mindful that millions of African-Americans remained enslaved. “In every human breast, God has implanted a principle, which we call love of freedom,” she wrote. “It is impatient of oppression, and pants for deliverance.” Decades later, abolitionists revived her poems as a reminder of that universal love of liberty. Phillis Wheatley thus left a legacy that struck a blow for freedom.