For generations, the name Phillis Wheatley has held sway in the Greenville community, due to the longstanding legacy of the Phillis Wheatley Community Center.
The center has been a center of learning, growth and camaraderie for black children in Greenville for more than a century, from the worst years of racial segregation to current social and economic challenges. Throughout this time, the center has remained a place where good memories are formed, where lasting friendships are forged.
But the name, itself, carries a much deeper legacy.
The woman behind the name
Although Phillis Wheatley herself had never visited Greenville, and had no direct connection to the area, there was a reason Hattie Logan Duckettwho founded the Phillis Wheatley Community Center in 1920, chose Wheatley as his namesake.
Born in 1753, Wheatley was the first black author to publish a book of poetry in the United States, which she did when she was just 20 years old. She became an international literary celebrity, her work read by kings and revolutionaries.
A portrait of Phillis Wheatley now hangs in the Greenville Community Center that bears her name.
Nyroba Leamon, director of programming at the community centre, said Wheatley is a symbol of how the birth station should not dictate the scope of its ambition.
“[Duckett] wanted young girls of the day to yearn to mature and express themselves, just like Phillis Wheatley,” Leamon said.
Although the community center, which at first only served young girls, soon opened its doors to boys as well, the lesson still holds true, Leamon said.
But for Wheatley, who achieved a lot before he died at 31, life was no mere success.
Born in West Africa – most likely present-day Gambia or Senegal – Wheatley was sold into slavery as a child and arrived in Boston on a slave ship on July 11, 1761, aged 10 or 11, according to the National Women’s History Museum.
Wheatley’s original name is lost forever, erased by the servitude that brought her to America, and it is not without cruel irony that scholars have noted the source of the name by which we all know her today. today.
Wheatley had arrived in Boston on the slave ship “The Phillis”, and when she was purchased by Boston’s wealthy Wheatley merchant family, “Phillis” was the name they gave her.
Shortly after arriving in Boston, Wheatley began to show a prodigious talent for writing, penning poems at the age of 12, according to the Phillis Wheatley Historical Society.
His first published poem, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin”, which appeared in the Newport Mercury newspaper in 1767 when Wheatley was 13 or 14, told the story of two men, Hussey and Coffin, who had narrowly escaped becoming castaways in a terrible storm near Cape Cod.
Wheatley had heard the story while serving food to the two men, who had been invited to the Wheatley home after the storm, and she later wrote of their ordeal:
Suppose the baseless Gulph removed
Hussey and Coffin at the stormy sea;
Where would they go? Where would their Home be?
With the supreme and independent God,
Or made their beds in the Shadows below,
Where neither Pleasure nor Content can flow.
Soon her talent spread further into the colonies, as she used her poetry to comment on current events, from the Boston Massacre to the Stamp Act.
But her poetic output was so impressive that Wheatley was forced to undergo “examinations” by Boston intellectuals to prove that a black girl was truly capable of producing such work (one such intellectual, founding father John Hancock, later testified that his work was indeed his own.)
Wheatley traveled to London to meet the literary crowds there and rose to fame across Europe, according to the Poetry Foundation – while enslaved to the Wheatley family.
In 1775, she wrote a poem directly addressed to General George Washington, praising the “virtue” of the future first president while advising him to “let the goddess guide” his actions, she was then personally welcomed into Washington’s house in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
These close associations with the power brokers of America and England would lead to later accusations that Wheatley had been too obedient and subservient to the white elite, although Wheatley never completely hid his thoughts on original sin. of slavery in America – even though publishers of the time frequently censored his most critical poems to reach the wider white audience.
She was also criticized by white intellectuals for being unworthy of her praise, notably by Thomas Jefferson, who dismissed Wheatley and all other black poets as incapable of understanding love itself – and therefore incapable of producing what he considered true poetry.
“Among the Negroes there is enough misery, God knows, but no poetry,” Jefferson wrote in his book “Notes on the State of Virginia.” “Love is the peculiar estrum of the poet…Religion has indeed produced a Phyllis Whatley [sic] but he could not produce a poet. The compositions published under his name are below the dignity of criticism.
For his part, Wheatley offered his own critique of slave owners. When the American Revolution broke out, Wheatley called for an end to slavery as a facet of the Revolution, comparing slave owners to the Egyptians who had enslaved Moses and the Jews of Israel in the Book of Exodus .
She wrote: “In every human bosom, God has planted a Principle, which we call the Love of Freedom. He is longing for Oppression, and panting for Deliverance; and with the permission of our modern Egyptians, I will affirm that the same Principle lives in us.
By 1778, however, Wheatley had grown impatient with the posture of a society that claimed to be fighting for freedom while keeping so many people in chains.
But how presumptuous shall we hope to find
Divine Acceptance with Almighty Spirit—
While still (O ungenerous action!) they dishonor
And hold in servitude the blameless race of Africa?
Wheatley did not live to see this hypocrisy corrected, although she herself gained freedom.
After publishing her collected poems under the title “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral”, she was emancipated and later married a free black grocer named John Peters.
But they didn’t live happily ever after.
Wheatley and Peters struggled with poverty, according to the National Women’s History Museum. Two of their babies died. John Peters was arrested for debt. Wheatley became a housekeeper at a boarding house, working to raise her surviving son. She died in obscurity and poverty in 1784. Her infant son died soon after.
Although Wheatley’s life ended in obscurity in his day, his name now adorns museums and history books, literary anthologies and textbooks – and even here in Greenville, on the doorstep of a center community that honors his legacy for over 100 years. .
A hymn to the evening
by Phillis Wheatley
As soon as the sun left the eastern hand
Resounding thunder shook the celestial plain;
Majestic grandeur! From the wing of the zephyr,
Exhales the incense of flowery spring.
Soft purr the streams, the birds renew their notes,
And in the air their mixed music floats.
Across all the skies, what beautiful matrices spread!
But the West glories in the deepest red:
So may our breasts shine with all their virtues,
The living temples of our God below!
Filled with the praise of the giver of light,
And draws the sable curtains of the night,
Let placid sleeps ease every weary spirit,
In the morning, wake up heavier, more refined;
Thus will begin the work of the day
Purer, more free from the snares of sin.
The leaden scepter of night seals my sleepy eyes,
So stop, my song, until the beautiful Dawn to augment.