Phillis Wheatley was a young African-American slave who belonged to landowner John Wheatley in Colonial America.
She was also a poet and the first African-American ever to publish a book.
Her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was printed in Boston in 1773,
three years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Early slaves were generally denied education.
But Wheatley was allowed by her owner to study poetry, Latin and the Bible.
And by the time she reached her late teens, she had written enough poetry to put together a slender book of verse.
Even so, publication was difficult.
The publisher, fearful of being cheated,
forced her to submit to a scholarly examination by a board of educated men, including the colonial governor.
The board of judges questioned Wheatley extensively and ruled that she was educated enough to have written the book.
Only then was publication permitted.
Wheatley may have been the first, but she was not the only slave to write a book during the growing days of the Republic.
Unfortunately, most of the early popular African-American writers have been all but forgotten in modern times, until now.
A Cornell professor, Henry Louis Gates,
recently started a research project looking into 19th century African-American fiction and poetry.
In the process, he uncovered numerous lost works, almost half of which were written by African-American women.
In varied literary styles, the newly resurfaced manuscripts offered a rich stock of African-American culture,
recreating among other things the early days of slavery and the importance of religion to the slaves.