News | September 28, 2023

Smithsonian Acquires Major Phillis Wheatley Peters Collection

Collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

 Ocean manuscript poem by Phillis Wheatley, 1773

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has acquired the largest private collection of items to bring new context and perspective to the life and literary impact of poet Phillis Wheatley Peters (c.1753–1784), including one of the few manuscripts written in the poet’s hand. 

Born in West Africa and captured by slave traders as a child, Wheatley Peters became the first African American to publish a book of poetry with the 1773 release of her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in London. A highlight of this acquisition is a four-page manuscript of a poem, Ocean, written in ink by Wheatley Peters' own hand, the only copy that exists today and previously unpublished before 1998. The poem was likely composed on her return voyage to America from England in September 1773. 

Of the 30 objects in this collection, six were published during her lifespan. Selected items from the collection can be viewed online through the Searchable Museum website. Plans to display these new acquisitions at a later date are in the works. 

“Phillis Wheatley Peters’ poetry brought her renown in abolitionist circles and presented as proof of the humanity of those of African descent and the inhumanity of slavery,” said Kevin Young, the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Scholars continue to parse through her work to determine when and where she posed resistance to slavery. Her poem On Being Brought from Africa to America is considered to be a chastisement of slavery to the millions of white Americans undergoing the religious revival movement known as ‘The Great Awakening.’ This must have pricked Thomas Jefferson’s conscience, for his 1785 publication of Notes on the State of Virginia dismissed Wheatley Peters’ talent as coming from religion and religious training rather than intellect.”

Other highlights of the collection include:

  • an issue of The Arminian Magazine, August 1789, featuring the 20-line poem On the Death of a Child, Five Years of Age, attributed to “Phillis Wheatly, a negro”
  • a hardcover edition of the book Pearls From the American Female Poets by Caroline May, 1869. The entry for Wheatley Peters spans pages 39 to 41 and includes a biographical note and two poems On the Death of a Young Gentleman of Great Promise and Sleep
  • a hardcover edition of the book The Poems of Phillis Wheatley, 1909. The red cloth cover features Wheatley Peters in profile and holding a quill to paper in her right hand
  • booklet published by the Phillis Wheatley Club of Waycross, Georgia, in 1930. Contains a biography of the poet and correspondence between Wheatley Peters and George Washington, including a poem she sent him, His Excellency General Washington

“This collection, ranging from the late 18th century to the early 20th century, provides a glimpse of Phillis Wheatley Peters the poet and Wheatley Peters the icon, as well as Wheatley Peters the woman,” said Angela Tate, curator of women’s history at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “This part of Wheatley Peters life has been long removed from popular culture and remembrance. A 1783 poem in this collection is of extreme interest because it is published under her married name of Phillis Peters, and furthermore, it is important to note that she is not presented as Mrs. John Peters.” 

Wheatley Peters spent most of her life enslaved and in service to John and Susanna Wheatley of Boston. She was named Phillis after the slave ship on which she was transported to the Americas. Her surname of Peters is that of the man she married in 1778, John Peters, a free man of color. Wheatley Peters’ owners taught her to read and write, and by age 14, she had begun to write poetry that would soon be published and circulated among the elites of late 18th-century America and Great Britain.