"Phillis Wheatley," 1773, National Portrait Gallery
Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) was taken from her birthplace in Africa and enslaved in the American colonies as a child. By the time she was a teenager, Wheatley had studied an array of different subjects, including literature, Latin, and Greek, and had begun to write her own poetry. She continued to pursue this interest and hone her talent, eventually publishing a collection of her works entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Mortal. With this publication, Phillis Wheatley became the first African-American poet to publish a book. However, because of Wheatley’s position as a black woman in colonial Boston, many people refused to believe that she could write such poetry. Wheatley’s books included a preface in which a bunch of well-known men (like John Hancock) signed their names to give their testimony that she had indeed written the poems inside. A portrait of Wheatley was included inside the front cover, adding further proof of the author’s identity.
Wheatley’s connection to King’s Chapel can be traced through this portrait. It is attributed to a man named Scipio Sarahson, also known as Scipio Morehead, a black artist enslaved by Presbyterian minister John Morehead. Clearly, their shared interests in the arts allowed Wheatley and Morehead to forge a connection and honor one another through their works; Morehead painted the author and Wheatley wrote a poem about the painter: “To S.M., A Young African Painter, On Seeing His Works”. Although neither Phillis Wheatley nor Scipio Morehead was a member of King’s Chapel, Scipio Morehead appears in the written records, having been baptised at the church on June 11, 1760. It is also possible that Wheatley would have attended services in the stone chapel during the American Revolution, when her congregation of Old South Meeting House was using King's Chapel's physical building.
Read Phillis Wheatley’s poem about Scipio Morehead and experience a bit of both artists’ talent: "To S. M., a Young African Painter, on Seeing His Works"
To show the lab'ring bosom's deep intent, And thought in living characters to paint, When first thy pencil did those beauties give, And breathing figures learnt from thee to live, How did those prospects give my soul delight, A new creation rushing on my sight? Still, wond'rous youth! each noble path pursue; On deathless glories fix thine ardent view: Still may the painter's and the poet's fire, To aid thy pencil and thy verse conspire! And may the charms of each seraphic theme Conduct thy footsteps to immortal fame! High to the blissful wonders of the skies Elate thy soul, and raise thy wishful eyes. Thrice happy, when exalted to survey That splendid city, crown'd with endless day, Whose twice six gates on radiant hinges ring: Celestial Salem blooms in endless spring. Calm and serene thy moments glide along, And may the muse inspire each future song! Still, with the sweets of contemplation bless'd, May peace with balmy wings your soul invest! But when these shades of time are chas'd away, And darkness ends in everlasting day, On what seraphic pinions shall we move, And view the landscapes in the realms above? There shall thy tongue in heav'nly murmurs flow, And there my muse with heav'nly transport glow; No more to tell of Damon's tender sighs, Or rising radiance of Aurora's eyes; For nobler themes demand a nobler strain, And purer language on th' ethereal plain. Cease, gentle Muse! the solemn gloom of night Now seals the fair creation from my sight.