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Phillis Wheatley: A Slave No More

Updated Aug 25, 2023
Phillis Wheatley: A Slave No More

Captured and Chained!

Screams and shouts echoed through my village as white-skinned men chained and forced us into the boats.

"Mama!" I cried as I was dragged away.

She reached across the distance, tears pouring down her beautiful face as she sobbed, "Baby!"

Then I saw her no more. I crouched in fear with the other captives, wondering what was to become of me.

I was seven years old.

Sold in a Slave Market

Two months later we reached land. Still in chains, I staggered to the shore, grateful for solid ground. I soon found myself an object of ridicule in the 1761 slave market.

"Look at that scrawny Negro!"

"You couldn't pay me to take that one!"

I felt humiliated, emptied of all I had been. Once I was a beloved daughter and sister, but what was I now? These people treated me like worthless garbage.

Finally the man yelled, "Sold!"

I wasn't sure what that meant, but the heavy chains were removed from me and I was given a ragged carpet to cover myself. A smiling man and his wife led me to a horse-drawn carriage.

A New Life

We traveled a few miles to an enormous dwelling with glass windows. My eyes took in colorful carpets and curtains and dark furniture gleaming in the mid-morning light. A faint ticking sound came from a box in the corner. When it chimed loudly, I jumped.

The man chuckled. "That's just a clock," he said. He looked at his wife. "I think you made a good choice, Susannah. No one else wanted this poor little girl. She is sure to become a good companion for you." The woman held out her hands. I saw a light in her eyes, and I felt warmed for the first time in weeks.

"Don't be afraid, child. We will take good care of you. You will live with us, and no one will hurt you again." She rose. "Now we need to get you cleaned up."

I thought of my parents. They had taught me that I mattered, that I was a gift. Maybe these people would treat me as if I was worth something. Perhaps my new life with the Wheatley family in Boston, Massachusetts, would be bearable.

My Very Own Book

"Phillis! I didn't realize you were there."

I lowered my gaze. As I cleaned the Wheatley's home, I often became distracted watching their daughter Mary at her studies.

"You've done this before," she said. "Come here."

Hesitantly I moved closer, smelling her lavender cologne.

"This is a book," she told me. "You learn about things in them."

I nodded.

"This one is the Bible. My parents have read it to me since I was real little." Her blue eyes glowed. "Would you like me to read it to you?"

"Yes, Miss!" I could barely contain myself.

She patted the chair next to hers.

"Sit down," she invited.

Each day, Mary read to me and taught me the alphabet. I learned quickly. I was afraid, however, when the head servant caught us.

"Phillis Wheatley!" Her eyes blazed. "Come here at once!"

She took me to Mistress Wheatley.

"Ma'am, I caught Phillis sitting with Miss Mary, reading. Slaves ain't supposed to read."

Mrs. Wheatley smiled. "That's okay, Susan. Phillis has a gift for language, and I want her to develop it." Within a year, I had mastered English. I was reading about God and His Son, Jesus Christ, and my heart was drawn to the Savior. One day the Wheatleys took me to hear the dynamic preacher George Whitefield, and I gave my heart completely to Jesus. The Wheatleys had made me a part of their family, and now I was part of God's family!

"You Never Wrote That!"

I loved all my studies, but I especially enjoyed learning about heroes of the past. I wanted to write about people in my time who were doing great things in God's strength. When I was 13, I wrote my first poem. When Pastor Whitefield died in 1770, I composed an elegy to honor him.

"This is superb!" Mrs. Wheatley exclaimed. "I'm taking this to the newspaper immediately."

I thought she was exaggerating. Would anyone really want to read my poetry? But Mrs. Wheatley was right. The newspaper published my poem and people actually liked it! Encouraged, I continued to submit poetry for publication, but not everyone appreciated this.

"Are you trying to tell me that a slave wrote these?" they asked.

"No Negro could write at all, let alone poetry!" some accused.

Mrs. Wheatley found me crying one day. "What is it, child?" She said as she sat next to me.

"Those people think I'm worthless and stupid because of my skin color."

She shook her head. "Phillis, they don't understand. God made you. He gave you your gift and He is pleased with you."

After that, she approached famous people who knew me, and they signed a document. It said, "We whose Names are under-written, do assure the World . . . that the Poems specified in the following Page were . . . written by Phillis, a young Negro Girl. . . She has been examined by some of the best Judges, and is thought qualified to write them." Among the signers were the Massachusetts governor and lieutenant governor, John Hancock, the Rev. Samuel Mather, and five judges. They helped me believe in myself.

A Book of Poetry

One day Mrs. Wheatley told me, "Your poems should be collected in a book so more people can read them."

When no one would believe that a slave could write, she reassured me. "Phillis, God has given you an extraordinary gift, and He will open doors."

Some lines from Phillis' poem "On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield."

Behold the prophet in his tow'ring flight!

He leaves the earth for heav'n's unmeasur'd height,

He prayed that grace in ev'ry heart might dwell,

He longed to see America excel;

He charg'd its youth that every grace divine

Should with full lustre in their conduct shine.

Help came in the form of a great lady, Selina, the Countess of Huntington, in England. She had been Mr. Whitefield's friend. To my surprise, she sent for me.

Once again, I crossed the expanse of ocean, this time as a first-class passenger. In London, the Countess treated me as a complete equal in her grand home. But all the grandeur paled in comparison to the joy I felt upon first seeing the leather-bound copy of Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral. My poems on great people of faith and on God's redeeming work through Jesus Christ were in print for many people to read!

I Meet George Washington

Back in America, I received many letters and visits from those who were now enjoying my poetry. It was the time of the American Revolution, and I wrote many poems about liberty. I dedicated one to General George Washington. When he read it, he sent for me! As I curtsied, he smiled.

"So this is the poetess," he said. "I had not realized you were so young."

"Yes, sir."

"I thank you for the kind poem you wrote about me."

"It is all true," I said, meeting his gaze.

"As are you," he replied. "As are you."

Make It Real! Questions to make you dig a little deeper and think a little harder.

How did God protect Phillis when she was captured?

Though the Wheatleys treated Phillis well and gave her the opportunity to learn, she was still a slave. Do you think she doubted her own worth?

How did Phillis help people to see that skin color has no effect on a person's gifts and abilities?

What special talents has God given to you? How can you use your talents to serve Him?

Suggested reading:

Phillis Wheatley by Victoria Sherrow (Chelsea House Publishers)

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A Voice of Her Own by Kathryn Lasky (Candlewick Press)

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Photo Credit: Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

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