Black History Month spotlight: Remembering Wheatley Hall namesake Phillis Wheatley
Thirty-three years ago this month, UMass Boston's Wheatley Hall was named after slave-turned-poet Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–1784).
Enslaved and sold when she was 7 or 8 (her exact birth year is unknown), Phillis Wheatley was named after The Phillis, the ship that took her to Boston in 1761. Her owner, John Wheatley, a progressive for the time, saw that Wheatley was bright and encouraged her education. By age 14, Wheatley had written her first poem.
In 1770, Wheatley wrote an elegy for the deceased Reverend George Whitefield, which became published throughout New England. Her young age, her sex, her heritage, and the short amount of time she had lived in the English-speaking world all contributed to her renown in her readers’ eyes. Without any formal education, she not only learned English but excelled at the art of the language in a remarkably short amount of time.
Wheatley’s growing fame, in combination with her poor health, led the Wheatley family to send her to London, where, at age 20, she published her first book of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. "To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth" is one of the best-known poems in the collection.
"Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
—To the … Earl of Dartmouth (1772)"
Shortly after being published, Wheatley was emancipated from her slave owners. She married John Peters a few years after.
But neither her literary success nor her marriage were able to bring her out of poverty. Her frailty due to continued illness, combined with the financial challenges of the Revolutionary War, prevented her from ever publishing her second book of poems. In 1784, Wheatley lost her husband to debtors’ prison, and all three of her children died infancy. Phillis Wheatley herself died on December 9, 1784.
There are documents related to Phillis Wheatley and the dedication of Wheatley Hall in the university archives.