The frontispiece of Phillis Wheatley's book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

photo by: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket

Preservation Magazine, Spring 2022

A Literary Luminary's Work is on Display at the Museum of African American History in Boston

In 1761, when Phillis Wheatley was only a child, European slave traders took her from her West African home and sold her to the Wheatleys, a wealthy merchant family in Boston.

Wheatley learned English quickly and proved to be a precocious student of reading, writing, Latin, and religion, among other subjects. Still enslaved, she began to write and publish acclaimed poems. By the time she was a teenager, Wheatley’s writing was widely praised in New England and Great Britain. White leaders of the time often assumed Black intellectual inferiority, and many incorrectly questioned her authorship of her work. Despite facing racism and enslavement, she became the first person of African descent to publish a book of poetry in the English language: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.

A first edition of that 1773 book is on display at the Museum of African American History in Boston, a National Trust Historic Site. The small, leather-bound volume lays open to the title page and frontispiece, which depicts the young poet with a quill set to paper. This etching is attributed to artist Scipio Moorhead, an enslaved man who was a friend and neighbor of Wheatley’s. It makes the book especially meaningful, says Director of Education and Interpretation L’Merchie Frazier, because it combines published literary and visual art by two enslaved 18th–century African Americans. “This book is a story of triumph over tremendous adversity,” she says.

Since 1989, when the book was donated to the museum, interest in Wheatley has grown steadily. Still, Frazier says, many people today don’t know her work or story.

Amy Sutherland is a writer and journalist based in Charlestown, Mass. She writes the "Bibliophiles" column for The Boston Globe's Sunday Books section, and is the author of four books.

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