THE FIRST African American to publish a book, Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-1784) became a symbol of black achievement, and her writings offered eloquent testimony against white racial prejudice and the institution of slavery. Slave traders in West Africa seized the girl, then seven or eight years old, and brought her to Boston, Massachusetts, where the wealthy merchant-tailor John Wheatley and his wife Susanna purchased her for their personal service. Although the girl spoke no English, the Wheatleys recognized her unusual ability and precocity. She learned with remarkable speed and soon lived more like the Wheatleys' daughter than as a slave. Within two years she spoke English fluently and by age 12 published her first poem in a Rhode Island newspaper. A few years later, a verse entitled "An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine . . . George Whitefield" (1770), honoring the evangelical Methodist, gained Phillis fame on both sides of the Atlantic.
Phillis, probably named for the vessel that carried her out of Africa, earned the respect and admiration of many colonial leaders, including John Hancock. She traveled to England in 1773, where London society received her with warmth and admiration. Her English contacts encouraged her work and supported the publication of her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). In 1776 she published a poem dedicated to George Washington and even visited the general's headquarters in Cambridge.
When death struck the Wheatley family in 1774, however, Phillis's life began spiraling downward. She continued to write and produced a 300-page book of poetry (now lost), but she could not find a publisher for it. Her unhappy marriage to John Peters, a Boston free black, produced three children, two of whom soon died. Abandoned by her husband, Phillis took to working in a boardinghouse, but in December 1784 both she and her remaining child died.