The subtitle of UGA’s and TCU’s collaborative initiative on “The Genius of Phillis Wheatley Peters” is purposefully plural in honoring “A Poet and Her Legacies.” In that vein, our recognizes that Wheatley Peters has played diverse roles for different groups while reflecting and supporting the social needs of different eras.
The nineteenth-century anti-slavery movement was one of many causes to which legacies of Phillis Wheatley Peters meaningfully contributed. Numerous nineteenth-century publications about Wheatley Peters cast her as an inspiring example of Black intellect and moral worth whose story could promote the abolitionist cause. For instance, abolitionist publisher and bookseller Isaac Knapp of Boston (who collaborated with William Lloyd Garrison in printing The Liberator newspaper) brought out an edition of Phillis Wheatley Peters poems, a memoir of her life along with additional “Poems by a slave.”
In the post-Civil-War / post-Reconstruction decades in the U.S., Phillis Wheatley Peters played an important role as an inspiration to Black Americans confronting the challenges of Jim Crow. During the rise of the Black clubwomen’s movement at the turn into the twentieth century, for instance, numerous local organizations proudly claimed her name. One group of Black women leaders in early 1900s’ Chicago collaboratively founded a Phyllis Wheatley Club and Home, where they provided safe living and learning space for women and girls coming to the city as part of the Great Migration.
Public schools across the country still honor her in their names (generally without the “Peters” married name added, interestingly.) One elementary school in Delaware offers an important reminder of the staying power of Phillis Wheatley Peters as an inspiring role model. Originally named for the poet in the 1920s, this school “lost the moniker Phyllis Wheatley after desegregation when it was renamed North Bridgeville Elementary” (Sharp). But the local Black community pushed back, and in 2004, “after a major renovation the school was officially renamed Phillis Wheatley Elementary School,” with the moniker “spelled out in huge letters on the side of the building” (Sharp). Alumni who had fought for this restoration emphasized that Phillis Wheatley Peters embodied an inspiring heritage in the community.
Sharp, Andrew. “Phillis Wheatley School: The story behind the name.” Delaware Independent https://www.andrewsharp.net/the-story-of-the-phillis-wheatley-segregated-school-bridgeville/. Accessed 3 March 2023.
Wheatley, Phillis. Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave. Also, Poems by a Slave. Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1838.
In the arts, Wheatley Peters’s legacies have been both transnational and multi-genre. In September 1774, just a year after her return to the North American colonies from England, one British writer published a lyric in London’s Sentimental Magazine under the title “Wrote after reading some Poems composed by Phillis Wheatley, an African Girl.” Through Wheatley, April C. E. Langley argues, readers may still achieve at least an indirect link to a Black aesthetic grounded in African cultural practices.
Black women have often led the way in saluting and extending Phillis Wheatley Peters' literary legacies. Mary Church Terrell wrote and directed a pageant in 1933, with one goal being to expand the cultural work of events being organized to commemorate George Washington. In Terrell’s play, the first president became a secondary figure in a script foregrounding Wheatley.
In 1973, Margaret Walker—herself, like Wheatley both poet and a Black thought leader—organized a celebratory event to honor PWP’s artistic contributions in the 200th anniversary year of the Poems’ publication. In 2023, another anniversary year, the Margaret Walker Center mounted an even more ambitious Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival recalling the first.
In the past decade, a burst of creative writing has emerged to reaffirm Phillis Wheatley Peters' artistic relevance. From plays composed by Ade Solanke and Paul Oakley Stovall (with Marilyn Campbell-Lowe) to books of poetry by drea brown, Alison Clarke, and Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Wheatley Peters lives on.
A flowering of children’s and YA literature linked to Wheatley Peters is continuing to demonstrate her ongoing impact on creative legacies also linked to educational goals.
“20 Black women poets to honor Phillis Wheatley” The New York Times 2 November 1973, p. 54.
Isani, Mukhtar Ali. “A Contemporaneous British Poem on Phillis Wheatley.” Black American Literature Forum vol. 24, no. 3, 1990, pp. 565-66.
Langley, April C. E. The Black Aesthetic Unbound: Theorizing the Dilemma of Eighteenth-Century African American Literature. Ohio State University Press, 2008.
Watch: Members of Old South Church in Boston, where Phillis Wheatley was a member, talk about Wheatley Peters' legacy. Old South Church celebrates this legacy annually on Wheatley Peters' birthday.
In this clip, Professor Barbara McCaskill (University of Georgia) discusses the ongoing influence and legacy of Phillis Wheatley Peters as part of a scholarly roundtable on Wheatley Peters.
Watch the entire roundtable discussion.