A searing rebuke of slavery and a searing defense of human equality, a 1774 newspaper printing of a letter written by African-American poet Phillis Wheatley is now part of the permanent collection of the Museum of American Revolution in Philadelphia.
The newly acquired document is an original print of Wheatley’s February 11, 1774 letter to the Presbyterian and Indian minister Mohegan Samson Occom, which was printed on the front page of the April 1, 1774 edition of the Connecticut Journal newspaper.
The letter was purchased from a private collector, through a donation from the American Heritage Credit Union and the Museum’s Collections Society in support of the museum’s diverse storytelling. It is now on display at the Museum until July 4.
In the letter, Wheatley tells Occom, her fellow activist for the rights of people of African and Native American descent, that “in every breast God has planted a principle, which we call the love of freedom; he is impatient of oppression. This is Wheatley’s first publication after his emancipation from slavery.
“This extremely rare diary is a key text in the history of the American Revolution and the struggle for human equality more broadly,” said Dr Philip Mead, Chief Historian of the Museum. “This is perhaps the clearest, most powerful, and most concise statement of the era advocating a common love of freedom as the basis of racial equality. We are very grateful for the support of the American Heritage Credit Union and President and CEO Bruce Foulke, who have been great friends of the Museum in acquiring this treasure.
Wheatley’s letter appeared shortly after his 1773 volume was published in London Poems on various subjects, religious and moral, the first book of poetry published by an African-American woman. A signed first edition of the book was donated to the Museum in 2018 by Museum Board Member Dr. Marion T. Lane. It is visible in the galleries of the Museum.
“At American Heritage, we have a heritage of supporting education and awareness of our nation’s history,” said Bruce K. Foulke, president and CEO of the American Heritage Credit Union. “Ms. Wheatley’s inspiring words and impact remain more relevant and vital to our nation than ever, and we are proud to partner with the Museum of the American Revolution to ensure her story is told to a wider audience. .
Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa and was captured as a child and transported to North America on a slave ship known as the The Phillis, for which she was later renamed. Enslaved and educated in the home of Boston merchant John Wheatley, she began writing beautiful and complex poetry about religion, nature, politics, race, slavery, art, and literature. His Poems on various subjects, religious and moral was hailed in Europe and the American colonies as an example of the artistic and intellectual equality of people of African descent. After her emancipation in 1774, she faced continued racial discrimination and died in poverty in 1784 at the age of 31.