The statue of Phillis Wheatley is one of three women subjects of the Boston Women’s Memorial on Commonwealth Avenue Mall between Fairfield Street and Gloucester Street. As described in the dedication program from 2003, “These three women share a strong sense of Boston identity, a place in national history, a passion for social justice and the ability to inspire and impact people.”
Phillis Wheatley was the first Black person, the first enslaved person, and the third woman in the United States to publish a book of poems. She was born in Senegal in 1753, kidnapped at eight years old, brought to Boston on a slave ship and purchased by John Wheatley as a personal servant for his wife. Her intelligence was noticed immediately and she was encouraged to study theology, and the English, Latin and Greek classics. She wrote her first published poem at age 13, modeling her work on the famous English poets of the time, John Milton, Thomas Gray, and Alexander Pope. Six years later she published a book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral achieving international distinction with George Washington and Voltaire both recognizing her talent. The book includes Christian elegies, as well as poems dealing with race, such as “On Being Brought from Africa to America.”
Wheatley’s doctor suggested that a sea voyage might improve her delicate health, so in 1771 she accompanied Nathaniel Wheatley on a trip to London. She was well received in London and wrote to a friend of the “unexpected and unmerited civility and complaisance with which I was treated by all.” Always in fragile health, she died before she was able to secure a publisher for a second volume of poems and letters. Her final manuscript was never found.
You can visit Phillis and the other historic women featured in the Boston Women’s Memorial on the F-G block of Commonwealth Avenue Mall, between Fairfield and Gloucester Streets.