"Lost Letters": Phillis Wheatley and John Peters

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

After she had achieved international fame, Phillis Wheatley met and married John Peters, a free Black man. In this deeply romantic pair of poems, Jeffers imagines their relationship starting with a sweetly imploring letter from Peters, who begs her to seriously consider his suit and wishes out loud that he could seek permission from her father to court her in the African way. The character of Phillis responds by teasingly calling him a pretty boy, questioning his work ethic, and wondering whether he can ever truly hold a candle to her father’s memory. The character of Phillis is filmed here in the balcony at the Old South Meeting House in a nod to John’s reference in the poem of admiring Phillis as she sat there, while the character of John speaks from a balcony on the building’s spire overlooking downtown Boston.

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In Context


In 1778, amid the loss of employment as a result of the deaths of John Wheatley and his daughter Mary, Phillis Wheatley found herself truly on her own. A free woman, she married John Peters, a free Black man, in that same year. How or when the couple met is unclear. Historians speculate the two had children, and if they did, all of them predeceased the couple.

Accounts of John Peters as a “man of notoriety” are largely unsubstantiated, but have fueled interpretations of him as a villain in the poet’s life that led her to financial ruin. Those who have sought to cast him as such point to his imprisonment for debt on multiple occasions and his name appearing in various legal documents and court cases. However, these cannot serve as a true indication of his character. At this time, involvement in court cases was not unusual since legal petitions were the only recourse for recovering disputed monies or obtaining sales licenses. Moreover, it is highly likely that the Peterses, like so many others, were swept up in the financial depression that followed the American Revolution, a time when promises of payment for goods were indefinitely disrupted.

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 May 29, 1778
In this letter, Phillis Wheatley asks Obour Tanner to send any correspondence to John Peters’s residence as, at this point in time, she was preparing to reside with Peters.
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Massachusetts Historical Society, Letter from Phillis Peters to Obour Tanner, dated May 10, 1779
The poet signs this letter Phillis Peters. Though she was an authoress who had published under Phillis Wheatley, she chose to adopt this married surname, the first time she would have been able to choose her name since arriving in Boston as an enslaved girl.
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In Phillis’s Words

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

“...Confess Iscarius, let they words be true
Nor let me find a faithless Bird in you...
Saw you not Sire, a tall and Gallant ship
Which proudly scims the surface of the deep
With pompous form from Boston’s port she came
She flies, and London her resounding name…
And thus the victor takes my life away…”

Artist Insights


MARC PIERRE (John Peters / Male Voice in Approval) Most recent credits include Emmy  and Absolution (Skeleton Rep), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Huntington Theatre Company), Three Musketeers (Greater Boston Stage Company), Cardboard Piano (New Repertory Theatre), Fences (Florida Repertory Theatre), Gloria (Gamm Theatre), Brawler (Kitchen Theatre Company), Airness (Actors Theatre of Louisville), Milk Like Sugar (Huntington Theatre Company), When January Feels Like Summer (Central Square Theater), Peter and the Starcatcher (Lyric Stage Company), and The Flick (Gloucester Stage). Television and film credits include "Castle Rock" (Hulu) and Twelve (Radar Pictures). Mr. Pierre is a recipient of the Isabel Sanford Scholarship and holds a BFA from Emerson College.

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

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.

Other Films

  • Phillis Wheatley is Baptized at Old South Church
    Phillis Wheatley is Baptized at Old South Church
    Jeffers imagines Wheatley Peters’ thoughts at the moment of her baptism, which might have included a mix of joy at a deepened connection with Christ and frustration at the church’s treatment of African Americans.
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  • Lost Letters: Phillis Wheatley and Obour Tanner
    Lost Letters: Phillis Wheatley and Obour Tanner
    In this pairing of poems, Jeffers imagines a first accidental meeting of Obour Tanner and Phillis Wheatley. 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 ...
    Read more →
  • How Phillis Wheatley Might Have Obtained the Approval of Eighteen Prominent White Men...
    How Phillis Wheatley Might Have Obtained the Approval of Eighteen Prominent White Men…
    As Phillis Wheatley sought to publish her first book, there were many who doubted that an enslaved Black woman was capable of such an accomplishment. Jeffers here imagines the courage it likely took 20-year-old Wheatley to face down their judgment and manage the balancing act of intellect and subservience that was likely required to secure ...
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  • The Replevin of Elizabeth Freeman (Also Known as Mum Bett)
    The Replevin of Elizabeth Freeman (Also Known as Mum Bett)
    Elizabeth Freeman helped to end slavery in Massachusetts through a lawsuit she filed in 1781. In this poem, Jeffers imagines her speaking to the profound injustice of being forced to seek her freedom in a system where only white men could argue her case and living in a world in which a Black person’s word ...
    Read more →
  • "Lost Letters": Phillis Wheatley and John Peters
    “Lost Letters”: Phillis Wheatley and John Peters
    After she had achieved international fame, Phillis Wheatley met and married John Peters, a free Black man. In this deeply romantic pair of poems, Jeffers imagines their relationship.
    Read more →
  • Blues:  Harpsichord, or Boston Massacre
    Blues: Harpsichord, or Boston Massacre
    We think of the Boston Massacre as the start of the American Revolution. In Jeffers’s hands, it becomes a moment to call out the hypocrisy of white colonists in comfortable circumstances who protested their “enslavement” by the British even as they held Blacks in bondage.
    Read more →