The Poet and the Petitioner

Frontispiece and title page of: Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784): Poems on various subjects, religious and moral.

In her remarkable poem, "To the University of Cambridge, in New-England," Phillis Wheatley, a woman born in Africa and brought to American as a slave, cautions the young men of eighteenth century Harvard to avoid sin and devote themselves to study.

In "The Poet and the Petitioner: Two Black Women in Harvard's Early History," Margot Minardi contrasts Wheatley's poem to a petition filed by a woman called "Belinda, an Affrican." When her Tory master fled the colonies and returned to England, Belinda appealed to the Massachusetts' state legislature (known as the General Court) for financial support.

As Minardi, Assistant Professor of History and Humanities at Reed College, explains:

Of these two women, who came to Massachusetts as slaves, one was a prodigy, the other illiterate, yet their two documents, the poem and the petition, served similar purposes. They got the men of Harvard College and the General Court—two of the oldest and most important secular institutions in Massachusetts—to pay attention, if only for a few moments, to the thoughts and experiences of black women.

Prof. Minardi's work appears in the book Yards and Gates: Gender in Harvard and Radcliffe History, edited by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Harvard's 300th Anniversary University Professor. The full text of the book is stored in DASH and available for download.