Phillis Peters signature

“Recovering the Lost Years of John Peters and Phillis Wheatley Peters"

Cornelia H. Dayton in conversation with Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Monday, November 1, 2021, at 7:00 PM ET

Cosponsored by the Worcester Black History Project

Approx. 60 minutes

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This online event is free, but registration is required.
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Though the early years of Phillis Wheatley’s life are well-established, the details of her life after she became Phillis Peters upon her marriage to John Peters, a free Black shopkeeper in Boston, have been more difficult to discern. In this conversation, Henry Louis Gates Jr. will discuss with Cornelia Dayton her groundbreaking article, recently published in the New England Quarterly, which uses a cache of Essex County legal papers to shed light on this period of Wheatley Peters’s life. The documents reveal that when the couple left Boston in 1780, they moved to Middleton, Massachusetts, where John became a landowner on a farm where he had formerly been enslaved. A complicated array of racial, class, and gender conflicts—all evident in more than 120 legal documents—led to their eviction and return to Boston in 1784, shortly before Wheatley Peters’s untimely death. This conversation will not only explore the significance of this new information for Wheatley Peters’s story, but also the ways in which looking for information in unexpected sources can complicate and expand upon current understandings of freedom, race, and gender in the eighteenth century.

Headshot of Cornelia DaytonCornelia H. Dayton is a professor of history at the University of Connecticut. Her research and teaching interests include law and society; women, gender, and sexuality; Revolutionary-era Boston; and New Englanders’ responses to mental health challenges prior to the 1840s. Her prize-winning books include Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789 (1995) and Robert Love’s Warnings: Searching for Strangers in Colonial Boston (2014), co-authored with Sharon V. Salinger. She earned her A.B. in history and government from Harvard-Radcliffe College and her Ph.D. in history from Princeton University. She was elected to AAS membership in 2000.

Headshot of Henry Louis GatesHenry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. Emmy and Peabody Award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, he has authored or coauthored many books and documentary films. His most recent include Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and The Rise of Jim Crow (2019) and The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song (2021), as well as continuing work on Finding Your Roots, his groundbreaking genealogy series on PBS. Gates was awarded a “genius grant” by the MacArthur Foundation and was the first African American scholar to be awarded the National Humanities Medal. Gates earned his B.A. from Yale University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in English literature from Clare College, University of Cambridge. A former chair of the Pulitzer Prize board, he serves on a wide array of boards, including the New York Public Library, the Aspen Institute, and the Brookings Institution. He was elected to AAS membership in 1989.

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