This is a guest blog post by Amelia Yeager (she/her), a first year Master’s student in public history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she studies free and unfree labor in early America and the legacies of rural labor and craft in cultural history. Amelia is a 2023 Buchanan Burnham Fellow.
Among notices for slaving voyages and runaway “servants”, the Newport Mercury quietly became one of the earliest American newspapers to publish a poem by an enslaved author. Printed in a city deeply connected to the slave trade, the words of an enslaved African girl on the pages of the Mercury indicate a printing attitude unique in the early American press. Tucked into the third page of the Mercury’s December 21, 1767, issue is “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” Phillis Wheatley’s first published poem. The poem itself is remarkable for its author’s mastery of allusion and form, especially considering she was only thirteen or fourteen when it was written. The brief note preceding it, though, has more to reveal.
“To the Printer,” the note reads, attributing “the following Lines” to “a Negro Girl (belonging to Mr. Wheatley of Boston)”. Preludes like this are not uncommon in the pages of the Mercury; what is significant about the editorial note, however, is that it locates the author in Boston, a city with a thriving literary culture. Why would Phillis Wheatley publish her first poem in a Newport paper rather than one of the many newspapers local to Boston?
One possibility is that Samuel Hall, who printed the Mercury in 1767, was the first publisher to accept the poem. Later in her life, Wheatley would have difficulty placing poems for publication; it was only with patronage from England that her first and only book of poetry was published. The interests of the Newport Mercury’s cosmopolitan readership made the paper home to news from neighboring colonies and beyond — and with broad connections came new ideas.
In 1774, Solomon Southwick, then the printer of the Newport Mercury, published an excerpt from a letter Wheatley wrote to Rev. Samson Occom, which had appeared in other New England publications. In it, Wheatley identified the hypocrisy of a nation campaigning for freedom while enslaving “their fellow Creatures.” Occom, a member of the Mohegan nation who became a Presbyterian during the Great Awakening, evidently agreed.
The pages of the Newport Mercury, despite hosting such a condemnation of human bondage, continued to advertise the sale of Africans and rewards for runaway slaves and servants. It is difficult for modern readers to fathom how a vindication of the rights of Africans and African Americans can be printed alongside notices that identify them as property. Even the man who published Wheatley’s letter, Solomon Southwick, enslaved four people the year it appeared in the Mercury.
Another potential reason for the connection between Wheatley and Newport is Obour Tanner, a frequent correspondent of Wheatley’s who would become a leader in Newport’s free African community. The two carried on a correspondence for years, but only a handful of Wheatley’s letters to Tanner survive (these will be the focus of my next blog post). The circumstances of her friendship with Wheatley raise more questions than answers: How did they first come into contact? Did they ever meet in person? To what extent were Tanner’s enslavers aware of her correspondence with Wheatley — and to what extent did they foster or discourage such open and frequent communication?
Regardless of the specifics, it’s clear that Wheatley’s connection to Newport goes beyond the pages of the Mercury. It’s always possible that additional documents and further connections could arise throughout New England, even within the NHS collection.
 Carl Bridenbaugh, “The Earliest-Published Poem of Phillis Wheatley,” The New England Quarterly 42, no. 4 (1969): 583–84, https://doi.org/10.2307/363473.
 Newport Mercury 814, April 11, 1774.
 Vincent Carretta, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage (Athens, Ga: University of Georgia Press, 2011): 45, 159-160.
 1774 Rhode Island Census, Newport Historical Society, 30.
Banner: Moorhead, Scipio, Active , Engraver. Phillis Wheatley, Negro servant to Mr. John Wheatley, of Boston. , 1773. [London, Archd. Bell, Sept. 1] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2002712199/.