A first edition of the book “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral”, by Phillis Wheatley, while she was enslaved to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston. Frontispiece features an oval portrait of Wheatley by Scipio Morehead, seated at a desk holding a quill pen. Along the top of the portrait are the words [PHILLIS WHEATLEY, NEGRO SERVANT TO MR. JOHN WHEATLEY OF BOSTON]. Poet Phillis Wheatley (c.1753-1784) was the first African-American author of a published book of poetry. Born in West Africa, she was sold into slavery as a child and transported to North America. The Wheatley family who bought her encouraged her poetry, and she was emancipated by them shortly after the publication of her book. Artist Unknown. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has acquired the largest private collection of items to bring new context and perspective to the life and literary impact of poet Phillis Wheatley Peters (c.1753–1784), including one of the few manuscripts written in the poet’s hand.
Born in West Africa and captured by slave traders as a child, Wheatley Peters became the first African American to publish a book of poetry with the 1773 release of her “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” in London. A rare and exciting highlight of this acquisition is a four-page manuscript of a poem, “Ocean,” written in ink by Wheatley Peters’s hand, the only copy that exists today and was unpublished before 1998. The poem was likely composed on her return voyage to America from England in September 1773.
“Phillis Wheatley Peters’s poetry brought her renown in abolitionist circles and presented as proof of the humanity of those of African descent and the inhumanity of slavery,” said Kevin Young, the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Scholars continue to parse through her work to determine when and where she posed resistance to slavery; her poem ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America’ is considered to be a chastisement of slavery to the millions of white Americans undergoing the religious revival movement known as ‘The Great Awakening.’ This must have pricked Thomas Jefferson’s conscience, for his 1785 publication of Notes on the State of Virginia dismissed Wheatley Peters’s talent as coming from religion and religious training rather than intellect.”
Some additional highlights of the collection include:
Autograph manuscript of the 70-line dramatic poem, “Ocean,” by Wheatley, ca. September 1773, four pages.
An issue of The Arminian Magazine, August 1789, features the 20-line poem “On the Death of a Child, Five Years of Age” and attributes it to “Phillis Wheatly, a negro.”
A hardcover edition of the book Pearls From the American Female Poets by Caroline May 1869. The entry for Wheatley Peters spans pages 39 to 41 and includes a biographical note and two poems: “On the Death of a Young Gentleman of Great Promise” and “Sleep.”
A hardcover edition of the book The Poems of Phillis Wheatley, 1909. The red cloth cover features Wheatley Peters in profile and holding a quill to paper in her right hand.
A hardcover edition of the book Phillis Wheatley (Phillis Peters): A Critical Attempt and a Bibliography of Her Writings by Charles Frederick Heartman, 1915. Translated into English from the original German.
Booklet published by the Phillis Wheatley Club of Waycross, Georgia, in 1930. It contains a biography of the poet and correspondence between Wheatley Peters and George Washington, including a poem she sent him, “His Excellency General Washington.”
Related: N. ANTHONY COLES NEW COUNCIL CHAIR OF NATIONAL MUSEUM OF AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY AND CULTURE
Source: Black Enterprise