From our collection: Phillis Wheatley

1887.0052.000  
March is Women's History Month, and what better way to celebrate than to highlight an item from our collection that pertains to a remarkable woman - Phillis Wheatley. Our library holds a first edition copy of Wheatley's Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, and for the time being, this item is on display as part of our Revolutionary Characters exhibit.

Phillis was about seven or eight years old in 1761 when she was purchased by John Wheatley.  She was named Phillis after the slave ship that brought her from Africa, and was given the Wheatley surname.  Phillis was intended to be a servant for John's wife Susannah, but beginning at a young age, Phillis was tutored by Wheatley's children, Nathaniel and Mary. When she exhibited a literary talent the Wheatley family worked to foster her education by passing domestic duties on to other household slaves, though she was still required to complete light chores. Phillis studied the Bible and subjects like geography and history, but it was her exposure to British literature and classical poets led her to write her own poetry. With the support of the Wheatley family, Phillis became the first African-American female poet to publish a book when Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published in London in 1773 by Archibald Bell. There are 39 poems in this collection, including "To the University of Cambridge in New England" which is thought to be the first poem she wrote.

PS 866 .W5 1773
The displayed book is currently open to the poem "Ode to Neptune" with a subtitle that it was written during Mrs. W--'s [Wheatley's] voyage to England. The book has been on exhibit for several months, and for preservation purposes, I turn the page occasionally to reduce the risk of light exposure to this 18th century book. Next month, the book will be taken off of display and returned to storage. In its place will go another item from our collection, the matted frontispiece from a different copy of Wheatley's book (pictured above). When the Society received this donation from member James Bugbee in 1887, the frontispiece had already been removed from the book. We feel lucky to have two items affiliated with Wheatley in our collection!

To learn more about Phillis Wheatley, please visit the Poetry Foundation site.

By Elizabeth Roscio, Library and Archives Manager