Phillis Wheatley. Library of
The Revolutionary Era ranged from 1764-1788 and marked a transition in the mindset of colonists. These British citizens, many petty aristocracy or convicts sentenced to populating colony outposts, decided to throw off the shackles of tyranny and become a sovereign nation. This idea was spurred on by reforms King George III, of Britain, sought to implement on the colonies, primarily taxation without representation. The taxes brought the British government funds needed to sustain their lives and kept the commercial and government machinery running smoothly. There were a number of tax laws imposed on the colonies, such as the Stamp Act of 1765, the Quartering Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767. These oppressive measures culminated in the Boston Tea Party of 1773, where colonists dumped tea into the Boston Harbor in protest to taxation.
During this period, African American women sought their freedom from the tyranny of enslavement. In 1765 Jenny Slew sued for her freedom in Massachusetts and won. Slew was born to a white woman and an enslaved black man. She lived as a free woman until 1762, when she was kidnapped and enslaved by John Whipple at age 43. In other colonies, Slew would not have been able to bring a lawsuit, since enslaved persons were denied access to the court. However, in Massachusetts, enslaved persons could bring cases before the court. Slew used the premise from the 1662 law in Virginia that her condition followed that of her mother, a free born white woman. Although Whipple won the first case, Slew kept trying and eventually won her freedom and was granted court costs and awarded four pounds. In 1781 Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman initiated a legal case, Brom and Bett vs. Ashley in Massachusetts. Freeman was purchased at six months old and raised in enslavement. After suffering abuse at the hands of her mistress, she escaped slavery and found a sympathetic ear in white attorney Theodore Sedgwick. With the help of Sedgwick, her case sought to establish a legal precedent for enslaved people throughout the state of Massachusetts, eventually leading to the abolition of slavery in the Commonwealth 1783. Freeman won her case and lived the remaining years of her life with the Sedgwick family.
During this time, Phillis Wheatley penned her first poem, which was published by the Newport Mercury in 1767. Similar to other enslaved women, Wheatley was captured as a child and sold into slavery. From the shores of West Africa, her life led to Massachusetts, where she lived a relatively free life in the home of John Wheatley. She was only expected to perform light chores, was given her own room and was taught to read and write. In 1773, she published 39 poems in Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Wheatley’s writings were astounding examples of creativity and her prose established the African American literary tradition.