Aspiring young poets from Knoxville’s YWCA Phyllis Wheatley Center visited the UT Knoxville campus on June 25. They stopped by Special Collections in the Hodges Library to learn more about the poet for whom the community center is named.
In Special Collections, the visitors saw a rare signed first edition of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in 1773, the first published book by an African American woman. Wheatley was seven years old when she was captured by slavers in West Africa, transported to America, and sold at auction. She was emancipated in 1773, the year her book was published.
Christopher Caldwell, the UT Libraries’ humanities services librarian, showed the students a number of rare poetry books and explained why such rare and fragile items are housed in Special Collections.
The teenagers took part in two poetry workshops this spring under the tutelage of UT English professor Katy Chiles and English major Kelli Frawley—a poetry-writing workshop and a workshop on famous African American poets. In the poetry-writing workshop, students wrote poems about Knoxville, taking their inspiration from the poem “Knoxville, Tennessee” by poet Nikki Giovanni, a native Knoxvillian.
The idea for the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Project emerged from conversations between Caldwell and Chiles while the two were attending a rare books conference.