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In the Classroom > African Americans Lessons > Three Great Women

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About Phillis Wheatley

In 1760, when Phillis was about 7 years old, she was brought from Africa to Boston and sold to the Wheatley family to be their slave. The Wheatleys saw that Phillis was smart because she learned to speak English very quickly, so Mrs. Wheatley taught her how to read and write. This was something strange to do! Many white women could only read a little bit and might not know how to write, and many slaves could not read or write at all, but by the time Phillis was 9, she could do both quite well. She loved to write poetry and she was very good at that too. One of her first poems told the true story of a ship that survived a storm at sea. This one was so good that it was printed in a newspaper. Phillis was only 14 and already she had published her first poem! She wrote many more poems and by the time she was 17, Phillis was famous for her poetry.

Even though Phillis was smart and well-educated, and even though she had very good manners, she still could not sit at a dinner table with white people except in her own home. At church, she and other black people had to sit upstairs while white people had the better seats downstairs. Worse, some white people believed that Phillis had not written her poems all by herself because she was black. They didn't believe a black girl could be so smart! Mrs. Wheatley wanted all of Phillis's poems to be printed in a book, but before that could happen, the Wheatleys had to prove that she had written them all by herself. She had to stand up in front of 18 very important men who asked her a lot of hard questions. She answered those hard questions, and the men did believe that Phillis had written her poems, but still, nobody would print her book. Mrs. Wheatley then decided to send Phillis to England to have it published there. Phillis got to meet some important people. She was supposed to meet the king, but she learned that Mrs. Wheatley was very sick so she sailed back to Boston right away instead.

Phillis's book of poems was printed in England and many people there bought it. Many people in America bought it, too. Because Phillis was so famous, she was given her freedom. She even got to meet General George Washington because she wrote a number of poems about how important it was for America to be free from England.

Phillis Wheatley was also the first black American woman to have a book printed for all to read.

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