Family Story Walks: Phillis Wheatley

Artist Insight | 02 June 2023

To celebrate our new season of Family Story Walks, artist Juwon Ogungbe explains the stories behind some of Greenwich’s most notorious residents…

Phillis Wheatley (1753 – 1784)

Phillis Wheatley was an 18th Century African American poet who was born in the Senegambian region of West Africa.

It is believed that Phillis was initially brought up in a family of Griots – oral historians, storytellers, singers and musicians of the Mande, Bambara, and Wolof traditions.

Captured and sold into slavery at the age of 7, Phillis was taken to Boston, Massachusetts in 1761. She was purchased by the Wheatley family.

Impressed by the young girl’s intelligence, members of the Wheatley family taught Phillis to read and write. She started writing poems and was soon noticed in Boston for her talent.

Mr and Mrs Wheatley decided to send Phillis on a trip to the UK with their son, Nathaniel. In London she read her poems to many influential people. Eventually she was offered a contract by a publisher to create a book of her poems.

The book which was entitled “Poems on various subjects, religious and moral” was published in London in 1773. Phillis dedicated the book to Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon – one of her most active British supporters. Granville Sharp – a notable activist in the struggle for the abolition of slavery and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, took Phillis to see many sights in London. Wheatley’s poems were well received by members of the abolitionist movement, and she was given her freedom and manumission in 1773.

Phillis Wheatley’s visit to London turned out to be the happiest moment in her life. On return to Boston – also in 1773, she struggled to forge a new life for herself in freedom.

It is not known whether Phillis Wheatley visited Greenwich Park during her London trip, but the experience led her to become memorable as probably the first Black woman to become successful as a published writer.

Her ground-breaking work helped to challenge stereotypical notions about Black people of African descent and her poetry is still read and admired today.

An inspiration to many, Phillis Wheatley is one of the most important African American poets of all time.

Further reading: On Being Brought from Africa to America by Phillis Wheatley | Poetry Foundation

Recommended music:

Who's Who

Juwon Ogungbe. A head and shoulders photo of a man with no hair and dark skin. He is wearing a maroon tshirt and black jacket. We can see bunting in the background

Juwon Ogungbe

Juwon Ogungbe is a distinguished opera singer and composer, as well as a performer in a range of other genres. He has composed for the BBC, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Southbank Centre amongst many others.

Juwon’s operatic works have been in various stages of development at Opera North, Grimeborn Opera Festival (Arcola Theatre) and at the Dhow Countries Music Academy, Zanzibar.

King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba – Juwon’s most recent music theatre piece was premiered in 2019 and several of his new works have been publicly performed in 2020.

More Digital Stage articles

five adults, seated as they move

Autumn Dance for Wellbeing Playlist by Holly Smith

Artist Insight | 02 June 2023

Family Story Walks: Ruth Belville. A black and white photograph of Ruth Belville in Victorian dress, standing in front of a large clock.

Family Story Walks: Ruth Belville

Artist Insight | 02 June 2023

Family Story Walks: Olaudah Equiano. A drawing of Olaudah Equiano.

Family Story Walks: Olaudah Equiano

Artist Insight | 02 June 2023