Phillis Wheatley was born in Senegal/Gambia around 1753, and captured and sold into slavery in the United States at the age of 7 or 8. Purchased by John Wheatley as a servant for his wife, Susanna, the young girl’s intelligence was impossible to miss. She was educated by the Wheatleys and quickly became fluent in Greek and Latin.
At the age of 13 she wrote her first poem, and by the age of 20 she had completed her first volume, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The year was 1773, and Wheatley became the first African American woman and U.S. slave to publish a book of poems, and the third American woman ever. In order to prove her authorship of the book, a preface was included in which 17 Boston men, including John Hancock, declared that she had, in fact, written each of the poems.
Wheatley was emancipated shortly after the publication of her book, but, as tension rose during the American Revolutionary War, Wheatley’s popularity declined. She married, but the couple constantly struggled with poverty and illness and she was soon forced to find service work to survive. The couple had three children, all of whom died in infancy. Wheatley died on Dec. 5, 1784.