COLUMNIST’S COLUMN CELEBRATING BLACK HISTORY MONTH
Phillis Wheatley First Publicly Acclaimed African-American Writer c. 1753 - 1784
By Patricia Brasky Chadwick
Phillis Wheatley was a highly educated woman and a gifted poet of the late eighteenth century. While it was unusual for a woman of that era to be highly educated, it was almost unheard of for a slave to be able to read and write. Regardless, Phillis Wheatley was a slave girl whose education helped to her to become a recognized and published poet in the late 1700s.
Born in Senegal, West Africa c. 1753, Phillis was kidnapped from her native land and brought to America on a slave ship in 1761. That same year, she was sold at a slave auction in Boston to the family of John Wheatley, a prominent Boston merchant. The Wheatley family treated Phillis with love and respect and allowed her unusual privileges for a slave, giving her the opportunity to learn to read and write.
When Phillis was still quite young, the Wheatleys recognized in her signs of a remarkable intelligence. She became the charge of the young Mary Wheatley, who, at age fifteen, had a thirst for knowledge and was one of the most highly educated women in Boston at the time. Mary took it upon herself to teach Phillis English and to educate her. Mary also enlisted the help of her twin brother, Nathaniel, to teach Phillis Latin. The family was also careful to teach Phillis the tenants of the Christian faith and she came to know the Bible well, becoming a Christian at a young age.
Phillis began to write poetry at the age of fourteen. Her first published work was a poem entitled On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin published in 1767 in the Newport Mercury. This was followed by a poem on the death of the Reverend George Whitefield, the great evangelical preacher who frequently toured New England titled An Elegiac Poem on the Death of the Celebrated Divine…George Whitefield. This poem, appearing in at least ten separate editions in major cities such as Boston, Newport, and Philadelphia, gave Phillis instant recognition and she became a sensation in Boston in the 1770s. The poem also appeared in London and she was contacted by Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon, an intimate friend of Rev. Whitefield's. The Countess invited Phillis to London to assist her in publishing her poems. Her first book of poems was published in 1773 and Phillis was lauded as England's most acclaimed poet. Her connection with Selina Hastings helped Phillis' reputation to spread across Europe and in America as well.
In 1773, upon hearing of the ill health of Mrs. Wheatley and that Mary expecting another child, Phillis returned home to help take care of her beloved family. Mrs. Wheatley improved for a while after Phillis' return, but she relapsed and died on March 3, 1774, leaving the Wheatley family devastated by the loss. Not long after, John Wheatley died and, since he was heavily in debt, the house was sold, and Phillis found that she was a free woman.
In 1778 Phillis married John Peters, a free black man, who had recently opened a grocery in Boston. She had two children Johnny, who died as a young boy, and Susan. In 1784, her husband was thrown into debtor’s prison leaving Phillis to make a living for herself and her daughter. She tried in vain to publish more of her poems to support her family, but was rejected at every turn because of her race. Finally, she took on a job as a scrubwoman in a boarding house, but her health soon began to deteriorate. Despite her ill health and dire circumstances, Phillis continued to write poetry. Sadly, she could not find a publisher willing to publish her work, mostly due to the struggling post-revolutionary economy. In 1784, however, she was able to publish several poems under the name of Phillis Peters. Never regaining her health, Phillis Wheatley died in poverty on December 5, 1784.
Phillis Wheatley's literary gifts and godliness were an outstanding example to her audience of the human capacity to overcome circumstances of birth. Though Phillis went through many hard times, her poetry didn't focus on injustice, but on positive themes, such as the salvation message of Christianity, morality, and piety. Her poems became popular again in the nineteenth century when they were reissued in the 1830s by Abolitionists who were eager to prove the human potential of blacks.
Ida Wells-Barnett Anti-Lynching Crusader
By Patricia Brasky Chadwick
Ida Wells-Barnett was an African-American educator, journalist, and a fearless activist who led an anti-lynching crusade in the 1890s. Born in 1862, Ida Wells was the daughter of slaves, growing up in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Her parents were freed from slavery shortly after her birth and the family was supported by the wages her parents brought in. Her mother was a "famous" cook in the area and her father was a skilled carpenter.
When Ida was only fourteen-years-old, tragedy struck. An epidemic of Yellow Fever swept through Holly Springs taking the life of her parents and youngest sibling. Rising to the occasion, Ida kept the rest of the family together by securing a teaching position. In order to further her education, she attended near-by Rust College, eventually moved to Memphis, Tennessee to live with her aunt and help raise her younger sisters.
Ida's fight for racial and gender justice began in 1884 while she was traveling to a school in Memphis. While on the train, Ida was asked by the conductor of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company to give up her seat on the train to a white man. She was ordered to take a seat in the smoking or "Jim Crow" car, which was already full of passengers. She refused and when he grabbed her wrist to move her, she bit him. The conductor then went forward and got two other men to help him, and together they dragged her out of the train, to the applause of the all-white passengers in the parlor car in which she was seated.
When she returned to Memphis, she immediately secured an attorney and sued the railroad. She won her case, initially, but when the railroad company appealed to the Supreme Court of Tennessee, it reversed the decision of the lower court. This was the first of Ida's many struggles to overturn injustices in America against women and minorities.
Soon after the incident with the Memphis railroad, Ida took up the pen. Her teaching career ended after she penned a series of articles that denounced the inadequate education provided to Black children. A short time later Ida became part owner of the Memphis Star newspaper where she used her writing to launch searing attacks against the practice of lynching.
In 1892, three of Ida's good friends were lynched. The three men, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart were owners of People's Grocery Company and their small grocery business had competed with white businesses. A group of angry white men attacked the People's Grocery, hoping to "eliminate" this competition, but the three owners fought back, shooting one of the attackers. The owners of the People's Grocery were arrested, but a lynch mob broke into the jail and dragged the three men away from the town and murdered them. This incensed Ida and she wrote a scathing article calling for justice. As a result of her investigative journalism and exposing injustice, her newspaper office was destroyed and Ida moved to Chicago.
Her move to Chicago did not silence Ida. Here she continued her blistering attacks on Southern injustices, being especially active in exposing unjust lynching of Black men, which were common in the South. Ida helped to found numerous African American women and reform groups as well and was active in the cause of women's suffrage. She also worked along side Jane Adams to successfully block the establishment of segregated schools in Chicago.
In 1895 Ida married F.L. Barnett, the editor of the Chicago Conservator. Though her intent was to retire from public life to the privacy of her home, she did not remain retired for long. Ida continued writing and organizing minority groups. In fact, she became one of two African American women to sign "the call" to form the NAACP in 1909 and single-handedly founded the first Black woman suffrage organization, the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago.
Ida Wells-Barnett the fearless and well-respected fighter for the rights of all mankind died in Chicago, Illinois in 1931 at the age of sixty-nine.
Patricia Chadwick is a freelance writer and creator of History's Women, an online magazine highlighting the extraordinary achievements of women throughout history. Visit at:
www.HistorysWomen.com and sign up for their FREE newsletter - contact email@example.com.