Since 1905, the Phyllis Wheatley Young Women’s Christian Association Inc. (YWCA), located at 901 Rhode Island Avenue in Northwest, has been a national historic landmark and — without interruption — offered safe, affordable housing to women and supported the endeavors of the city’s youth.
The organization’s annual fundraiser is coming up this month, in honor of Women’s History Month. Held at the Howard University’s Blackburn Center this year, it is sure to be a blessing.
The Phyllis Wheatley YWCA is a 501c3 corporation, named for the first black female poet in America. The mission of the PWYWCA is “to provide affordable housing and programs to women regardless of race, creed, or color. We serve women in transition to prevent homelessness. We also provide outreach services to children and the community. The Phyllis Wheatley YWCA operates as an independent living facility.”
One of America’s first poets, Phillis Wheatley was born in 1753 in Africa. She was captured by slave traders and brought to America where she was sold in July 1761 to the Wheatley family in Boston, Massachusetts. Her name (Phillis) was derived from the name of the ship that brought her to America, the Phyllis.
Her owners educated her, and within sixteen months of her arrival in America she could read the Bible, Greek and Latin classics, and British literature. She also studied astronomy and geography. When she was fourteen years old, Wheatley began to exercise her gift of writing poetry by publishing “An Elegiac Poem, on the Death of the Celebrated Divine George Whitefield” in 1770, which brought her great notoriety. In 1773, with financial support from the English Countess of Huntingdon, Wheatley published her first collection of poems, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral,” the first book written by a black woman in America and the second one to be written by any woman.
Wheatley’s poems reflected several influences on her life, including famous poets she studied, such as Alexander Pope and Thomas Gray. Women in an African-American tribal group who practiced oration influenced her to write in a style that is known as elegiac poetry. Her education in Latin influenced her to write in a short epic style. Some of her most popular poems were “To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty” and “To the University of Cambridge in New England.”
Wheatley developed notoriety in the United States and England. She was a supporter of George Washington and the patriots during the Revolutionary War. During the peak of her writing career, she wrote a well-received poem praising the appointment of Washington as the commander of the Continental Army. However, she felt that slavery was the issue that prevented the colonists from achieving true heroism.
In 1778, Wheatley gained her freedom when her master died. That same year she married John Peters, a free black man from Boston with whom she had several children. Wheatley passed away in December 1784, due to complications from childbirth.
In addition to making an important contribution to American literature, Wheatley’s literary and artistic talents helped show that African-Americans were equally capable, creative, intelligent human beings who benefited from an education. In part, this helped the cause of the abolition movement.
Here in D.C., the board of directors of the Wheatley YWCA is celebrating an “Afternoon of Smooth Jazz,” featuring music by The Jonathan Davis Project, on Sunday, March 26 at 3 p.m. at Howard University’s Armour J. Blackburn Center Ballroom East. This celebration will honor former and current residents whose lives have been deeply affected by their connection to the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA.
Please join them in this celebration as they continue the legacy. Tickets are $65 each. Call 202-667-9100 for ticket information.
Lyndia Grant is the host of “Think on These Things,” a radio talk show on WYCB (1340 AM), Fridays at 6 p.m. Contact her at 202-518-3192 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.