Diversity and Phyllis Wheatley


In 1700, there were about 250,000 Europeans and African Americans in the colonies. By 1775, that number had increased 10-fold to 2.5 million. This huge increase was due in part to a prolific birth rate and in part to a steady flow of immigrants into the country.

The most concentrated period of migration to America occurred in the fifteen years prior to the American Revolution, when approximately 220,000 new faces arrived on the eastern seaboard. About 85,000 of these were African Americans. Scotch-Irish, Scots, English and Germans constituted the bulk of the remaining immigrants.

The 13 British colonies in which they arrived were different in a variety of ways. Congregational churches dominated New England, while Anglicans were prevalent in Virginia. Quakers settled Pennsylvania and Catholics were tolerated primarily in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

The Scotch Irish tended to migrate to the western regions of the colonies from Pennsylvania southward. New York and the Hudson River Valley contained a great number of Dutch families, remnants of its years as a Dutch-held colony. And Pennsylvania had enough Germans to alarm Benjamin Franklin, who wrote, in 1755: "Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of Anglifying them?"

East Coast Ethnic Map

More than 90 per cent of colonial families lived in rural areas and there were at least four basic economies. In the deep south, Georgia and South Carolina, rice was the chief export. Tobacco production dominated the Chesapeake Bay colonies. The middle colonies, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, produced bread, flour and grain. And New England's chief exports were dried fish, livestock and wood.

The great majority of African Americans lived, and were enslaved, in the southern colonies, though slavery itself was practiced north and south. In Virginia, in 1790, slaves numbered about 300,000. At approximately the same time, a majority of South Carolina was African American.

The number of free blacks grew dramatically after the American Revolution, from 60,000 in 1790, to 110,000 ten years later. Still, that figure represented just 11 per cent of the total African American population.

Phyllis Wheatley


America's first published black poet, Phillis Wheatley, born in Senegal, was sold into slavery to John and Susannah Wheatley of Boston around 1760.

At an early age, Phillis displayed remarkable talents and published her first poem, in 1770, when she was just 17. Three years later, a volume of her poetry was published in London and Wheatley became a sensation.

Wheatley's poetry dealt primarily with religious and moral themes---her first published piece was an elegy to the evangelical preacher George Whitefield. But she was also a patriot and admirer of George Washington, about whom she wrote:

A crown, a mansion, and a throne
    that shine,
With gold unfading,
    Washington! be thine.

Wheatley died at age 31, in 1784.


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