Lost Letters: Phillis Wheatley and Obour Tanner

In Context | Primary Sources | In Phillis’s Words | Artist Insights | Further Reading

In these poems, Jeffers imagines a first accidental meeting of Obour Tanner and Phillis Wheatley, fast friends and frequent correspondents. The two women shared the traumatic experience of enslavement and the perilous Middle Passage, and the challenge of holding on to their identities as African women even as their masters demanded that they build new lives in New England without reference to their pasts. Here, they reflect on the joy of finding chosen sisterhood on the streets of Newport, Rhode Island, a major center of the brutal Atlantic slave trade that brought them both to the shores of North America. This set of poems was filmed inside the Old South Meeting House in honor of their letters, which often concerned religion.

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In Context


Obour (also spelled “Arbour”) Tanner was an enslaved woman in the household of James Tanner in Newport, Rhode Island. Tanner and Wheatley communicated in a series of letters for several years beginning in 1772, though the exact occasion of their meeting is unknown.

Obour Tanner was a baptized member of the First Congregational Church in Newport; by 1793, records indicate that she was both a free woman and married to a Barra Tanner. It is unknown, however, just how long she had been free. She had married Barra in 1789. Wheatley and Tanner wrote to one another on a variety of topics, but most prominently they engaged together in discussions on religion. Tanner died in Newport on June 21, 1835, 59 years after the passing of her dear friend, Phillis Wheatley Peters.

Primary Sources

Links to documents and artifacts relating to the moment and events referenced in the poem.

Massachusetts Historical Society, Letter from Phillis Wheatley to Obour Tanner, dated July 19, 1772
In this letter, Phillis Wheatley discusses her delicate health and religious views with Obour Tanner. Religion, in particular, was something the two connected deeply on.
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Massachusetts Historical Society, Letter from Phillis Wheatley to Obour Tanner, dated October 30, 1773
In this letter, Wheatley encloses a copy of her proposals to her friend Obour Tanner.
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In Phillis’s Words

Excerpts of Phillis Wheatley Peters’s writings that resonate thematically with Jeffers’s poems.

“...I hope the correspondence between us will continue...which correspondence I hope may have the happy effect of improving our mutual friendship. Till we meet in the regions of consummate blessedness, let us endeavor by the assistance of divine grace, to live life, and we Shall die the death of Righteous. May this be our happy case… Friend & hum. Sert. Phillis Wheatley”

Artist Insights


SABRINA VICTOR (Phillis Wheatley Peters) currently reigns as Miss Massachusetts USA 2020. She is an artist of many fields - actor, arts activist, model, content creator, social media influencer, and speaker. Theater credits include: The Donkey Show (American Repertory Theatre), School Girls, Or; The African Mean Girls Play (SpeakEasy Stage), and Miss You Like Hell(Company One). Sabrina graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst with two undergraduate degrees in Theater and Journalism, a Multicultural Theater Certificate, and Commonwealth Honors. www.sabrinakvictor.com

REGINE VITAL (Obour Tanner) is an actor, dramaturg, director, writer, educator, scholar, and storyteller from Somerville, MA. She has worked with several Boston area theatre companies, including ArtsEmerson, Company One, Central Square Theatre, HUB Theatre Company, Fresh Ink Theatre, and Flat Earth Theatre. Regine holds degrees from Boston University, UMass Boston, and recently studied Shakespeare at King’s College, London and Shakespeare’s Globe. She has taught composition and introductory literature at the college level; text and performance to high schoolers; and continuing adult education classes in literature. Currently, Regine is Manager of Curriculum and Instruction at the Huntington Theatre Company.

HONORÉE FANONNE JEFFERS (Poet) is the author of five poetry books, including The Age of Phillis (Wesleyan 2020), long-listed for the 2020 National Book Award and winner of the 2021 NAACP Image Award in Poetry. In addition, Jeffers has authored one forthcoming novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois (Harper 2021).  She has received fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Witter Bynner Foundation through the Library of Congress. Currently, she is the 2021 USA Mellon Fellow in Writing.  Jeffers is Professor of English at University of Oklahoma.

JOHN OLUWOLE ADEKOJE (Director) is a national award winner of The Kennedy Center's ACTF Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award for the play Street Hawker; as well as a recipient of The Roxbury International Film Festival's Emerging Local Filmmaker Award for the documentary Street Soldiers, which also showed at the Pan African Film Festival in Cannes, France, The World Film Festival-Montreal, and the BronzeLens Film Festival in Atlanta. ADEkoje has received the Brother Thomas Fellowship Award and he is a playwriting Fellow at the Huntington Theater Company. Most recently, he was awarded the Emerging Filmmaker Award for Knockaround Kids, his narrative feature, at the Roxbury International Film Festival which all showed at the Urbanworld Film Festival in New York. Knockaround Kids can be found on Tubi, Amazon prime, Google Play, Apple and other film platforms. ADEkoje is the co-director and director of photography for the digital version of Hype Man (Company One/American Repertory Theatre) as well as the writer, director and projection/art designer for the Triggered Life Project (Portland Playhouse). He teaches film production and theatre at Boston Arts Academy.

PATRICK GABRIDGE (Producer) is a playwright, novelist, and screenwriter whose work has been read and produced around the world. With his company Plays in Place he creates new site-specific plays in partnership with museums and historic sites, including Mount Auburn Cemetery, Boston’s Old State House, Old South Meeting House, and Roosevelt-Campobello International Park.

Further Reading

Links to additional resources.

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