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African American Women Writers of the 19th Century: Thompson-Wheatley

African American Women Writers of the 19th Century guide includes a digital collection of published works by 19th-century black women writers, biographies for each author, citations and much more

Clara Ann Thompson

Clara Ann Thompson (1869-1949) was one of John Henry and Clara Jane Gray Thompson's three children who had a passion for poetry. Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, once enslaved in Virginia, raised their children (five in all) in Rossmoyne, Ohio, not far from Cincinnati. Except for a bit of teaching away from her hometown, Clara Ann Thompson spent the entirety of her adult life in Rossmoyne, living, along with her sister Priscilla Jane Thompson, with an older brother, Garland Yancey Thompson. Clara's major avocation and only vocation was writing poetry and holding readings. In 1908, several years after Priscilla self-published her first collection of poems, Ethiope Lays (1900) and brother Aaron self-published his two volumes, Morning Sun (1899) and Echoes of Spring (1901), Clara self-published her book of close to forty significantly religious poems, Songs from the Wayside. In 1926, her second collection, A Garland of Poems, was published by a company in Boston.

Priscilla Jane Thompson

Priscilla Jane Thompson (1871-1942), like her older sister, Clara Ann Thompson, lived her entire life in Rossmoyne, Ohio, and never married. Also like Clara, and their brother Aaron, Priscilla Jane wrote poetry. She self-published two volumes of verse. The first Ethiope Lays (1900) was an attempt she said, "to picture the real side of my race . . . their patience, fortitude and forbearance." Her second volume Gleanings of Quiet Hours (1907) contained many poems from the first.

Bethany Veney

Bethany Veney (?-?), born in slavery in Virginia, never knew her father and lost her mother when she was about nine years old. The rest of her childhood was a river of sadness, and as a young woman she lost the man she dearly loved and with whom she had a child.

In 1858, a Mr. G.J. Adams of Providence, Rhode Island, purchased Veney for the sole purpose of freeing her, and she began a fruitful life in the North. Known as "Aunt Betty," Veney was in her seventies when she dictated her life story, probably to the M.W.G. who wrote the preface to The Narrative of Bethany Veney: A Slave Woman (1889).

Phillis Wheatley. Date Issued 1923.

Phillis Wheatley.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. "Phillis Wheatley." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1923.


Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-1784), who is believed to have been a Fulani of Gambia, was named after the slave schooner Phillis that hauled her to Boston Harbor in 1761. At age seven or eight, she became the property of a local tailor, John Wheatley, who later claimed that, "Without any assistance from School Education, and by only what she was taught in the Family, she, in sixteen Months Time from her arrival, attained the English Language, to which she was an utter Stranger before, to such a Degree, as to read any, the most difficult of Parts of the Sacred Writings." What's more, having mastered English, Phillis Wheatley was keen to learn Latin.

John Wheatley's statement on his servant's brilliance is dated November 14, 1772. This statement was part of the front matter to Phillis Wheatley's small collection of verse: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which was published in England in September 1773. With the book's publication, Phillis Wheatley became the first African living in the British colonies to have a book published, and the second American woman to have a book of verse published. Phillis Wheatley became quite a sensation, especially in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and she was eventually freed, but the rest of her life was not full of ease.

In 1778, Phillis married John Peters and entered a troubled existence. Early in their marriage the couple had two children, both of whom were dead by 1784. At that point, Phillis Wheatley Peters, around age thirty-one, was doing domestic work at a low rate boarding house, and was pregnant again. The delivery was difficult; Phillis Wheatley died in the process and her baby died a few hours later. All that was left of this young genius's presence on this planet was her verse: her famous book, and poems she had once hoped to include in a second book of verse.


Author Biographies by Tonya Bolden

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