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Phillis Wheatley: Young Revolutionary Poet

Phillis Wheatley: Young Revolutionary Poet

by Kathryn Kilby Borland, Helen Ross Speicher, Cathy Morrison (Illustrator)

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Phillis Wheatley's rise from slavery to recognition as the foremost African American poet in the American colonies is featured in this volume of the Young Patriots series. Focusing on Phillis's early years, this profile reveals her illiterate beginnings in the Wheatley family and the turbulent pre–Revolutionary War climate in which she became an avid student


Phillis Wheatley's rise from slavery to recognition as the foremost African American poet in the American colonies is featured in this volume of the Young Patriots series. Focusing on Phillis's early years, this profile reveals her illiterate beginnings in the Wheatley family and the turbulent pre–Revolutionary War climate in which she became an avid student and young poet. Young readers will rejoice as she protects her friend Nat from British soldiers after the Boston Tea Party and delight when one of her poems results in a life-changing meeting with George Washington. Vivid illustrations accent this window into an exciting era in which Phillis found strength in the face of adversity and became a celebrated poet. Special features include a summary of Phillis's adult accomplishments, fun facts detailing little-known tidbits of information about her, and a time line of her life.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[This book's] purpose is to not only teach history but to show how a young person can grow into greatness." —Heartland Reviews

"Children will see the relevance of history as it affects a real child's life." —Ohioana Library Association

Product Details

Patria Press, Inc
Publication date:
Young Patriots Series , #10
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.40(d)
Age Range:
8 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

Phillis Wheatley

Young Revolutionary Poet

By Kathryn Kilby Borland, Helen Ross Speicher, Harold Underdown, Cathy Morrison

Patria Press, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Kathryn Kilby Borland and the Estate of Helen Ross Speicher
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-882859-87-0


Phillis Is A Pretty Name

"What am I bid for this strong, healthy girl?" the auctioneer asked.

The crowd on the Boston wharf on this June morning in 1761 laughed. The small black girl actually looked very frail. She was wrapped in a piece of ragged carpet, but she shivered and coughed in a cool breeze.

"Surely somebody could use this good helper in the kitchen," the auctioneer coaxed.

"I'll take her," a soft voice spoke. One of two well-dressed white women standing at the edge of the crowd pushed her way forward slowly. The auctioneer took the money she held out and shoved the child toward her.

"You must be out of your mind, Susannah Wheatley," the woman's friend said. "When John told you to buy a girl to help Sukey in the kitchen, he meant a strong girl. This girl will just be a burden to Sukey."

"She looked so little and frightened that I had to take her," Mrs. Wheatley said. "You know how I feel about slavery."

"What about Sukey and Prince?"

"Sukey's been with us all her life, and she wouldn't be happy anywhere else. Prince was given to Mr. Wheatley by a man who owed him a large bill. He is working out his freedom."

"Well," her friend responded, "it's odd that you're here in a slave market when you don't believe in slavery."

Soon they reached their carriage, where a tall black man waited. He opened the carriage door. Mrs. Wheatley motioned for the little girl to enter, but the child shrank back and started to cry softly.

"Put her in the carriage if she won't enter herself, Prince," said Mrs. Wentworth.

"Yes, Mrs. Wentworth," Prince replied, but he looked at Mrs. Wheatley.

"Just a minute, Prince," Mrs. Wheatley said. "The poor child is frightened."

Mrs. Wheatley put her hand under the little girl's chin and looked down into her watery eyes. "We are your friends, child," she said softly. "Don't be afraid."

Mrs. Wentworth sniffed. "As if she could understand a word you say!" she laughed. (Figure 1.1)

"Of course she doesn't, but she can understand the way I say it." Mrs. Wheatley held out her hand to the child and they climbed into the carriage. The little girl sat close beside Mrs. Wheatley and closed her eyes. She was still shivering.

Mrs. Wentworth stared at the child. "How old do you think she is, Susannah?"

"I would say she is about seven. She has some front teeth missing, and that's the age when Nat and Mary lost theirs."


Prince stopped to let Mrs. Wentworth out at her home. A few minutes later the carriage came to a big brick house, where the Wheatleys lived. Mrs. Wheatley and the girl got out, went up the front steps, and on through the door.

A tall girl came racing down from upstairs. She was running so fast that she had to stop herself by bumping into the wall. "Mary, are you six or sixteen?" her mother asked, smiling.

"Gracious, Mother, is that Sukey's new helper?"

"She'll grow. I had to bring her home. She looked so little and afraid."

"Yes, Mother, she's even afraid of me." Mary got down on her knees and put her arms around the little girl. "Doesn't she know we wouldn't hurt her? What are we going to do with her? How will we teach her to talk?"

"I don't know," Mrs. Wheatley said. "You'll have to help me. The first thing is to wash her and find her some clothes. Go help Sukey fill a tub by the fire in the kitchen."

Sukey was sleeping in her chair by the fire. When she saw the girl with Mrs. Wheatley and Mary, she shook her head. "Where'd that mite come from?" she asked. "I reckon that's not the help you were going to bring me."

"Never mind about help," Mrs. Wheatley said. "Right now the girl needs a bath."

"I guess she does," Sukey sniffed. "And she needs some food and she needs her hair untangled. We need to burn that filthy old carpet she's wearing for a dress."

Sukey helped Mary fill a big wooden tub with water from a kettle hanging in the fireplace.

"I reckon I'll need help to hold her in here," Sukey said. "She'll die scared if she gets wet all over at the same time."

To their surprise, the child enjoyed being in the tub. She filled her hands with water and let it trickle out between her fingers. She made little excited noises.

"Perhaps she lived near a river and played in the water," Mary said.

When Mr. Wheatley came home that evening, Sukey had cooked his favorite dinner, baked ham and cornbread. Usually everyone saved news to tell at the table. Tonight Mrs. Wheatley asked Mr. Wheatley what had happened at his tailoring shop during the day. She asked Mary's twin, Nat, what he had done at Latin School, but she hardly listened to their answers.

Mary said nothing. Once in a while she looked at her mother, and her mother shook her head. At last the strawberries and cake were brought in. Mrs. Wheatley nodded at Mary.

Mary dashed to the kitchen and came back, leading the little girl. The child's small, thin face seemed to float over a long white petticoat which completely covered her feet and trailed on the floor. They had cut her dark hair close to her head.

"Doesn't she look nice, Father?" Mary asked proudly. "We combed her hair and found some clean clothes for her to wear."

"Goodness!" Mr. Wheatley laid down his spoon. "Is this supposed to be the new helper for old Sukey?"

Mrs. Wheatley nodded her head. She looked at him anxiously. Mr. Wheatley merely shook his head and started to laugh. The little girl broke loose from Mary's hand and ran to the kitchen.

Then Mrs. Wheatley explained what had happened in the market that morning. "Well, I might have known you'd bring me home a helpless creature," Mr. Wheatley said. But he said it as if he were proud of her.

Mary went to the kitchen and soon came back with the child so close behind her that Mr. Wheatley could see only the ruffle of the white petticoat. Finally Mary coaxed her to come and sit on her lap. She sat there stiffly, her bright eyes wide open.

"Her bones almost show through her skin," Mr. Wheatley said. "Has she had anything to eat?"

"Sukey tried to feed her, but she wouldn't eat anything," Mary said.

"Wouldn't eat? The child's starving. Of course she'll eat." He held out a strawberry. The child looked at it but did not reach for it.

"Try this." Nat gave up half a slice of his pound cake. Mary held it to the child's mouth, but she turned her head away.

"She's certainly not used to our food," Mary said. "If only we knew what she used to eat."

Mrs. Wheatley smiled. "You may be right, but she'll soon learn to like baked beans and codfish cakes instead. Now she needs a good night's sleep."

"Can't we name her first, Mother?" Mary asked. "Let's give her a pretty name."

"How's Aphrodite?" Nat asked. "Or maybe Penelope?"

"Don't be silly, Nat," Mary said. "She's too little for a long name."

"Phillis is a pretty name," Mrs. Wheatley suggested thoughtfully.

"Phillis," Mary repeated softly. "Phillis. I like that name." The child looked up at Mary and, for the first time, smiled.

"She likes it, too," Mr. Wheatley said. "Her name will be Phillis."


So Much to Learn

Mary opened her eyes. It was light, but the sun wasn't shining yet. She hardly ever woke up so early. Suddenly she heard a loud crash of breaking china.

She sat up in bed so that she could check on Phillis. But the little mattress Phillis slept on at the foot of Mary's bed was empty.

Mary ran into the hall. Her father and Nat were already there. Her mother was running downstairs. Phillis was sitting at the foot of the stairs, crying. Mary's water pitcher, with its pink painted roses, was broken into a hundred pieces.

Phillis jumped up and ran too an east window. She pointedexcitedly out the window and spoke in her own language. Then she hurried back to the stairs and frantically tried to scoop up some of the water on the floor.

"Evidently she wants water," said Nat, leaning over the banister.

"Mary, take her out to the kitchen and get her a glass of water," said Mr. Wheatley. "Then we can go back to bed."

"I don't think she's thirsty, Father."

"Then why does she want water?" asked Mrs. Wheatley thoughtfully.

Phillis pointed out the window and began to cry again. Mary went over to the window beside her. "There's nothing to cry about out there, Phillis," she said. "The sun is up, and it's going to be a beautiful day."

Later that morning Mary brought Phillis down to the kitchen, and Sukey gave her a piece of bread to eat before breakfast. At first Phillis looked at the bread suspiciously, but finally she took a tiny bite. Then she held it tightly in both hands and ate it quickly. When she finished, she held out her hand to Sukey, and Sukey gave her another piece.

As Phillis held out her hand for the fourth time, Mrs. Wheatley came into the kitchen. "Since she's hungry, perhaps she'll try something else," she suggested.

Sukey put some oatmeal into a bowl and set it on the table in front of Phillis. The child looked at it and turned away.

The next few days were rainy, and Mary and Phillis stayed in the house. At first Phillis stayed close to Mary. Then gradually she began to trust others, too. Her appetite grew along with her trust in the family. Not only did she eat the foods that Mary coaxed her to try, but she tried soap and silver polish.

"There's nothing in the house she doesn't want to taste," Sukey remarked. But she smiled as she watched Phillis scampering around.

The next sunny morning, Mary woke up with the feeling that something was wrong. She sat up and looked at Phillis' bed. It was empty.

Mary ran out into the hall. There was no sign of Phillis. Then she heard a small sound from the kitchen and ran quietly downstairs. There she found Phillis pounding on the heavy locked door. Beside her on the floor was a big white pitcher.

When Phillis saw Mary she pointed to the window and began to cry. Once again Mary saw only a beautiful sunrise. When she told the others at breakfast, none of them could guess what Phillis wanted.

"It's something outdoors," Nat said.

"And she needs water for it," Mary said.

"And she wants the water in a pitcher for some reason," Mr. Wheatley added. "It may be some kind of ritual."

"Mary," Nat said, "Let's leave the kitchen door unlocked tonight. Then when she gets up, we can follow her and see what she does."

"Do you approve, Mother?" Mary asked.

"Well, if we can find out what she wants to do, perhaps we can help," Mrs. Wheatley said, "provided your father agrees to leaving the door unlocked."

"There won't be much danger in leaving the door unlocked," Mr. Wheatley said, "and I want to stop this nonsense. I can't afford to go on buying pitchers forever."

Mary promised to knock on Nat's wall as soon as Phillis left their room in the morning. But in the morning Mary found rain spitting against her window. Phillis slept peacefully until Mary got up.

"She needs sunshine for the ritual," Nat said. "When it stops raining, we'll try again."

The next morning the sky began to lighten very early. Mary woke up and lay with her eyes closed.

At last she heard Phillis stirring about. Then she heard a rustling of the covers. Careful not to seem to be awake, Mary peered out through her eyelashes. Phillis dressed very quickly and tiptoed over to Mary's little mahogany bureau.

Carefully she lifted the heavy pitcher of water and crept to the door. She set the pitcher down gently while she opened the door. Then she slipped through and closed it without making a sound.

As soon as Phillis closed the door, Mary quickly dressed. When she was sure Phillis was downstairs, she knocked softly on Nat's wall. By the time she reached the head of the stairs, he was out of his room. Quickly the two of them hurried downstairs into the kitchen. They found the back door open, but no sign of Phillis. Quietly they stepped out into the cool early morning air. There they found Phillis facing the sun which was just coming up, red and beautiful.

She poured water out of the pitcher onto the ground. She bent over and touched her forehead to the ground. Then she stood up and held her thin arms out toward the sun. On her face was a radiant smile.


"She's worshipping the sun, as she did at home," Nat said softly.

When Phillis heard them she took several steps backward and looked as if she might cry. Mary and Nat hadn't noticed that their mother was standing behind them. She said, "Phillis, there's nothing to be afraid of. Nobody's going to be angry with you."

Phillis picked up the pitcher and ran to Mrs. Wheatley. She pointed to Mary and then she pointed to Mrs. Wheatley. She made motions of pouring.

"I have no idea what she's trying to tell us," Mrs. Wheatley said.

"I know!" Mary said excitedly. "She's telling us that her mother did what she's doing." (Figure 2.1)

"You're right, Mary!" Nat said. "Her mother worshipped the sun god by pouring out water just as the sun came up in the morning. That's why she couldn't do it on a rainy day."

At the breakfast table Mary and Nat told their father what Phillis had done. Mr. Wheatley listened while he buttered a piece of warm bread.

"Let's hope that she'll now be content to stay in bed in the morning until the rest of us get up," he said.

Mrs. Wheatley shook her head. "No, I doubt that she will," she said.

"Well, we can't have her getting up early every morning when the sun shines," said Mr. Wheatley.

"But it's her religion," said Mrs. Wheatley. "It's her way of worshipping God, the only way she knows. It's the way she learned in Africa before she came here."

"Then do we let her go on tramping around and breaking pitchers?" Mr. Wheatley asked.

"I know what we can do," said Mrs. Wheatley. "We'll give her a little pitcher to use in place of the big one. Letting her do something familiar will comfort her."

"You are right as usual, my dear," Mr. Wheatley commented.

Phillis' eyes glowed when Mrs. Wheatley handed her a small blue and white cream pitcher that night when she was ready for bed. Mary helped her fill it with water, and she set it on the floor beside her mattress.

In a few days the family became used to the sound of Phillis' tiptoeing downstairs every sunny morning.

By now Phillis ate heartily with the members of the family and no longer tasted things around the house. She looked far different from the little girl Mrs. Wheatley had found on the Boston wharf. But she still was thin and coughed a great deal, which worried Mrs. Wheatley.

"The child still is delicate," Mrs. Wheatley said to Sukey. "She needs good food and plenty of rest and sunshine every day."

"If it's food she needs it won't take long to do the job," Sukey said. "That girl must be hollow all the way through."

One day when Mary woke after the sun had risen, she found Phillis asleep. The little blue and white pitcher still stood on the floor beside her, half full of water. After that, Phillis crept downstairs a few more times. Then one morning she put the small pitcher beside Mary's big one on the bureau and left it there.

Mrs. Wheatley and Mary made dresses for Phillis. They were plain, dark cotton dresses, with little white scarves tied in front. She wore ruffled white caps with them, as most New England girls did.

Phillis was proud of her new clothes. She loved to stand in front of the long mirror in Mary's room, making faces at herself and giggling. However, Phillis did not see any good reason to wear the long hot dresses on warm summer days. One day Mary looked out the back door and saw Phillis' long gray dress draped over a rosebush. Her stiff petticoat covered another bush. Phillis sat under a chestnut tree in her long under-drawers, fanning herself with a big leaf.

That afternoon Mrs. Wheatley found her sitting on the front porch wearing only her petticoat. She shooed her into the house, hoping none of the neighbors had seen.

"There's just no way to make her understand," she sighed.

"She understands what she wants to understand," Sukey grumbled. "It's time that girl learned to talk. She'll learn fast, whenever she makes up her mind."


Say "Apple"

"Ap-ple, Phillis. Say ap-ple," Mary repeated patiently. But Phillis wasn't looking at the apple. She was watching a red bird on a bush beside the open kitchen door.

Nat stopped in the doorway. "You don't seem to be making much progress," he said. "Phillis is smart, but I'm beginning to wonder if she'll ever learn to speak English."

"Of course she will," Mary said. "I can tell by the look in her eyes. It will just take patience and love."

"Look, Phillis. Apple. Eat." Mary took a bite out of the apple and held it out toward Phillis.

The girl looked at it curiously, but did not touch it.

"Mary," Mrs. Wheatley called from upstairs. Mary dashed out of the room. When she came back later, Phillis had disappeared. Every apple in the bowl had one big bite taken out.

While Mary was still looking at the apples, Sukey called from the pantry. "Now look what that Phillis did. She ate half the cake I saved for supper. Miss Susannah said to give her all she wanted to eat, but there's no filling her up. Where has she gone?"

"I don't know," Mary answered. "She just disappeared a few minutes ago."

"She's probably around somewhere looking for something to eat," Sukey said, smiling. "Things surely will be easier around here when she learns to speak English."


Excerpted from Phillis Wheatley by Kathryn Kilby Borland, Helen Ross Speicher, Harold Underdown, Cathy Morrison. Copyright © 2005 Kathryn Kilby Borland and the Estate of Helen Ross Speicher. Excerpted by permission of Patria Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Kathryn Kilby Borland and Helen Ross Speicher are the authors of two of the original Childhood of Famous Americans series (Alan Pinkerton, Young Detective and Eugene Field, Young Poet) from which the Young Patriots series was derived. Cathy Morrison is the illustrator of Ignacio's Chair and the Young Patriots series. She is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and Picturebookartists.org. She lives in Denver, Colorado.

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