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Presidents Day, Meet Black History Month

Remembering an exchange between George Washington and the poet Phillis Wheatley.

Black History Month is almost over and this year’s Presidents Day is gone, but February 28 marks the date that our first president reached out to America’s first famous black poet. On that day in 1776, George Washington, from his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sent a remarkable invitation to 23-year-old Phillis Wheatley, who had been kidnapped from her African village 15 years earlier. 

After surviving the Transatlantic crossing, Wheatley was sold to the Massachusetts household of John Wheatley. He, his wife, and their daughter soon realized that their new slave was brilliant. They excused Phillis from many household chores so she could learn not only English but also Latin and Greek. Soon, Phillis could read and understand difficult passages from the Bible and classical literature. And she began writing poems.

In 1772, 18 Boston leaders—including slave owners, ministers, and colonial governor Thomas Hutchison—assembled to investigate Wheatley. Blown away, they signed a letter acknowledging her brainpower and talent. The following year John Wheatley freed her, and in 1775 she wrote a poem that (in the exalted style of the era) described George Washington as “first in place and honours. … A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, / With gold unfading, Washington! be thine.” 

The poet sent her verses to the general on October 26, but her letter bounced around for six weeks before he read it, then he delayed responding. Washington finally wrote on February 28: “I thank you most sincerely for your polite notice of me, in the elegant Lines you enclosed … the style and manner exhibit a striking proof of your great poetical Talents.” 

Washington’s reply also contained three remarkable details. First, he emphasized his desire to “apologize for the delay.” Second, he extended an invitation: “If you should ever come to Cambridge, or near Head Quarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favourd by the Muses, and to whom nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations.” And third, he concluded: “I am, with great Respect, Your obedt humble servant, G. Washington.” 

Unless Washington did not know Wheatley was black—that’s unlikely—he committed three “sins” that some of his contemporaries would have found unforgivable. Apologize to a black woman? Invite her to headquarters, where Washington was directing the siege of British troops in Boston? Finish with courtesies that treated her as an equal, and perhaps even more so?