The Hand of America's First Black Female Poet Phyllis Wheatley was America's first published black poet -- a native of Senegal, sold into slavery in Boston in 1761 and taught to read and write. Now a newly discovered letter by her is expected to fetch top dollar at auction.
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The Hand of America's First Black Female Poet

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The Hand of America's First Black Female Poet

The Hand of America's First Black Female Poet

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Mr. JEREMY MARKOWITZ (Autograph Specialist, Swann Auction Galleries): (Reading) `I received your kind letter on the 17th ultimo by Cato Cogshawl(ph). Had not the opportunity to see him.'

GORDON: That's Jeremy Markowitz, an autograph specialist at the Swann Auction Galleries in New York. Tomorrow, the galleries will auction a newly discovered two-page letter written by poet and ex-slave Phillis Wheatley.

Mr. MARKOWITZ: (Reading) `The ambition and thirst of dominion in some is designed as the punishment of the national views of others, though it bears the appearance of greater barbarity than that of the uncivilized part of mankind.'

GORDON: Wheatley was America's first published black poet. She was born in Senegal, West Africa. She was sold to John Wheatley of Boston in 1761. Wheatley was too sickly for hard labor and was taught to read and write.

Mr. MARKOWITZ: (Reading) `Dutiful respects to Mr. Hopkins and family, and believe me to be your affectionate P. Wheatley.'

GORDON: She published her first poem December 21st, 1767. At the young age of 30, Wheatley died alone and penniless. The starting bid for Wheatley's letter is $80,000.

Mr. MARKOWITZ: We have a previously unknown, unpublished Phillis Wheatley letter coming to auction. It's a tremendous find. We've not been able to find a single Phillis Wheatley letter to ever come to auction before, and this is, you know--it's exciting for both scholars and collectors. This letter, and seven other known letters by her, are written to Obour Tanner, who is a good friend of hers and a slave in Newport, Rhode Island.

There's several reasons why this letter is extremely important, the most notable of which is the content of the letter. It's unusual to find material from African-Americans of this time period discussing the American Revolution. This was the most important event happening, obviously, in 1776, and Phillis Wheatley had a prime position to view it all. She actually lived just across the street from where the Boston Massacre happened and knew Sam Adams and many of the patriots of the day.

The letter's been consigned to Swann Auction Galleries by a descendant of Amasa Walker. And Amasa Walker was a noted Massachusetts politician. He was one of the founders of the Free-Soil Party, which was founded in the 19th century to oppose slavery in the Territories, and a noted resident of North Brookfield, Massachusetts. He received the letter from Catherine E. Beecher. Catherine kept them and cherished them. She was an abolitionist herself and was the sister-in-law of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Our hope, of course, is that this letter is, in fact--ends up in a museum or an institution, but the owner of the letter has decided to sell it, in part to pay for her grandchildren's education, believe it or not. I can't give you the name, but it's--the letter's consigned by a descendant of Amasa Walker who currently lives in Baltimore.

GORDON: Jeremy Markowitz is an autograph specialist with the Swann Auction Galleries in New York. You can view Phillis Wheatley's two-page letter by going to our Web site at npr.org.

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