William Wells Brown

William Wells Brown


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William Wells Brown was born near Lexington, Kentucky, in 1814. His father was George Higgins, a white plantation owner, but his mother was a black slave. "My mother's name was Elizabeth. She had seven children, Solomon, Leander, Benjamin, Joseph, Millford, Elizabeth, and myself. No two of us were children of the same father."

As a house slave he was better treated than the field workers: "I was a house servant - a situation preferable to that of a field hand, as I was better fed, better clothed, and not obliged to rise at the ringing of the bell, but about half an hour after."

When he was a child his master moved to Saint Charles, Missouri. "My master owned about forty slaves, twenty-five of whom were field hands... in addition to his practice as a physician, he carried on milling, merchandising and farming. He had a large farm, the principal productions of which were tobacco and hemp. The slave cabins were situated on the back part of the farm, with the house of the overseer, whose name was Grove Cook, in their midst."

William continued as a house slave but was distressed about the punishment of the field workers: "Though the field was some distance from the house, I could hear every crack of the whip, and every groan and cry of my poor mother. I remained at the door, not daring to venture any further. The cold chills ran over me, and I wept aloud. After giving her ten lashes, the sound of the whip ceased, and I returned to my bed, and found no consolation but in my tears. Experience has taught me that nothing can be more heart-rending than for one to see a dear and beloved mother or sister tortured, and to hear their cries, and not be able to render them assistance."

William's master moved to St. Louis: "My mother was hired out in the city, and I was also hired out there to Major Freeland, who kept a public house. He was formerly from Virginia, and was a horse-racer, cock-fighter, gambler, and withal an inveterate drunkard. There were ten or twelve servants in the house, and when he was present, it was cut and slash - knock down and drag out. In his fits of anger, he would take up a chair, and throw it at a servant; and in his more rational moments, when he wished to chastise one, he would tie them up in the smoke-house, and whip them; after which, he would cause a fire to be made of tobacco stems, and smoke them."

William decided to become a runaway. "I complained to my master of the treatment which I received from Major Freeland; but it made no difference. He cared nothing about it, so long as he received the money for my labor. After living with Major Freeland five or six months, I ran away, and went into the woods back of the city... One day, while in the woods, I heard the barking and howling of dogs, and in a short time they came so near that I knew them to be the bloodhounds of Major Benjamin O'Fallon. He kept five or six, to hunt runaway slaves with... As soon as I was convinced that it was them, I knew there was no chance of escape. I took refuge in the top of a tree, and the hounds were soon at its base, and there remained until the hunters came up in a half or three quarters of an hour afterwards."

William was severly punished for trying to escape slavery: "After we returned home, I was tied up in the smoke-house, and was very severely whipped. After the major had flogged me to his satisfaction, he sent out his son Robert, a young man eighteen or twenty years of age, to see that I was well smoked. He made a fire of tobacco stems, which soon set me to coughing and sneezing. This, Robert told me, was the way his father used to do to his slaves in Virginia. After giving me what they conceived to be a decent smoking, I was untied and again set to work."

William was eventually hired by Elijah P. Lovejoy, who was at that time publisher and editor of the St. Louis Times. "My work, while with him, was mainly in the printing office, waiting on the hands, working the press, etc. Mr. Lovejoy was a very good man, and decidedly the best master that I had ever had. I am chiefly indebted to him, and to my employment in the printing office, for what little learning I obtained while in slavery."

In 1834 he managed to escape to Dayton, Ohio, where he was helped by Wells Brown, a Quaker. He later recalled in his autobiography, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave (1847): "He was a devoted friend of the slave; but was very old, and not in the enjoyment of good health. After being by the fire awhile, I found that my feet had been very much frozen. I was seized with a fever, which threatened to confine me to my bed. But my friends soon raised me, treating me as kindly as if I had been one of their own children. I remained with them twelve or fifteen days, during which time they made me some clothing, and the old gentleman purchased me a pair of boots... Before leaving this good Quaker friend, he inquired what my name was besides William. I told him that I had no other name." He replied "Since thee has got out of slavery, thee has become a man, and men always have two names." William therefore decided to adopt the name of the man who saved him.

Brown became a conductor on the Underground Railroad and worked on a Lake Erie steamer ferrying slaves to freedom in Canada.

In 1843 Brown became a lecturing agent for the New York Anti-Slavery Society. After obtaining a reputation as one of the movement's best orators, Brown was employed by the American Anti-Slavery Society where he worked closely with William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips.

Brown, who settled in Boston, published his autobiography, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, in 1847. He obtained a living lecturing on slavery and temperance reform in America and Europe. This inspired his book, Three Years in Europe (1852). In 1853 Brown published Clotel, a story about Thomas Jefferson's relationship with a slave mistress Sally Hemings. The book is believed to be the first novel to be published by an African-American. Brown also wrote a play, The Escape (1858) and several historical works including The Black Man (1863), The Negro in the American Revolution (1867), The Rising Son (1873) and another volume of autobiography, My Southern Home (1880).

William Wells Brown died on the 6th November, 1884, in Chelsea, Massachusetts.

I was born in Lexington, Kentucky. The man who stole me as soon as I was born, recorded the births of all the infants which he claimed to be born his property, in a book which he kept for that purpose. My mother's name was Elizabeth. No two of us were children of the same father. My father's name, as I learned from my mother, was George Higgins. He was a white man, a relative of my master, and connected with some of the first families in Kentucky.

My master owned about forty slaves, twenty-five of whom were field hands. He removed from Kentucky to Missouri when I was quite young, and settled thirty or forty miles above St. Charles, on the Missouri, where, in addition to his practice as a physician, he carried on milling, merchandising and farming. The slave cabins were situated on the back part of the farm, with the house of the overseer, whose name was Grove Cook, in their midst. He had the entire charge of the farm, and having no family, was allowed a woman to keep house for him, whose business it was to deal out the provisions for the hands.

A woman was also kept at the quarters to do the cooking for the field hands, who were summoned to their unrequited toil every morning, at four o'clock, by the ringing of a bell, hung on a post near the house of the overseer. They were allowed half an hour to eat their breakfast, and get to the field. At half past four a horn was blown by the overseer, which was the signal to commence work; and every one that was not on the spot at the time, had to receive ten lashes from the negro-whip, with which the overseer always went armed. The handle was about three feet long, with the butt-end filled with lead, and the lash, six or seven feet in length, made of cow-hide, with platted wire on the end of it. This whip was put in requisition very frequently and freely, and a small offence on the part of a slave furnished an occasion for its use.

During the time that Mr. Cook was overseer, I was a house servant - a situation preferable to that of a field hand, as I was better fed, better clothed, and not obliged to rise at the ringing of the bell, but about half an hour after. I have often laid and heard the crack of the whip, and the screams of the slave. My mother was a field hand, and one morning was ten or fifteen minutes behind the others in getting into the field. As soon as she reached the spot where they were at work, the overseer commenced whipping her. She cried, "Oh! pray - Oh! pray - Oh! pray" - these are generally the words of slaves, when imploring mercy at the hands of their oppressors. I heard her voice, and knew it, and jumped out of my bunk, and went to the door. Though the field was some distance from the house, I could hear every crack of the whip, and every groan and cry of my poor mother. Experience has taught me that nothing can be more heart-rending than for one to see a dear and beloved mother or sister tortured, and to hear their cries, and not be able to render them assistance. But such is the position which an American slave occupies.

My mother was hired out in the city, and I was also hired out there to Major Freeland, who kept a public house. In his fits of anger, he would take up a chair, and throw it at a servant; and in his more rational moments, when he wished to chastise one, he would tie them up in the smoke-house, and whip them; after which, he would cause a fire to be made of tobacco stems, and smoke them. This he called "Virginia play."

I complained to my master of the treatment which I received from Major Freeland; but it made no difference. After living with Major Freeland five or six months, I ran away, and went into the woods back of the city; and when night came on, I made my way to my master's farm, but was afraid to be seen, knowing that if Mr. Haskell, the overseer, should discover me, I should be again carried back to Major Freeland; so I kept in the woods. He kept five or six, to hunt runaway slaves with.

As soon as I was convinced that it was them, I knew there was no chance of escape. I took refuge in the top of a tree, and the hounds were soon at its base, and there remained until the hunters came up in a half or three quarters of an hour afterwards. There were two men with the dogs, who, as soon as they came up, ordered me to descend. I came down, was tied, and taken to St. Louis jail. Major Freeland soon made his appearance, and took me out, and ordered me to follow him, which I did. After we returned home, I was tied up in the smoke-house, and was very severely whipped. After giving me what they conceived to be a decent smoking, I was untied and again set to work.

I was soon after taken from Mr. Colburn's, and hired to Elijah P. Lovejoy, who was at that time publisher and editor of the St. Louis Times. My work, while with him, was mainly in the printing office, waiting on the hands, working the press, etc. I am chiefly indebted to him, and to my employment in the printing office, for what little learning I obtained while in slavery.

While living with Mr. Lovejoy, I was often sent on errands to the office of the Missouri Republican, published by Mr. Edward Charless. Once, while returning to the office with type, I was attacked by several large boys, sons of slave-holders, who pelted me with snow-balls. Having the heavy form of type in my hands, I could not make my escape by running; so I laid down the type and gave them battle. They gathered around me, pelting me with stones and sticks, until they overpowered me, and would have captured me, if I had not resorted to my heels. Upon my retreat they took possession of the type; and what to do to regain it I could not devise. Knowing Mr. Lovejoy to be a very humane man, I went to the office and laid the case before him. He told me to remain in the office. He took one of the apprentices with him and went after the type, and soon returned with it; but on his return informed me that Samuel McKinney had told him he would whip me, because I had hurt his boy. Soon after, McKinney was seen making his way to the office by one of the printers, who informed me of the fact, and I made my escape through the back door.

McKinney not being able to find me on his arrival, left the office in a great rage, swearing that he would whip me to death. A few days after, as I was walking along Main street, he seized me by the collar, and struck me over the head five or six times with a large cane, which caused the blood to gush from my nose and ears in such a manner that my clothes were completely saturated with blood. After beating me to his satisfaction he let me go, and I returned to the office so weak from the loss of blood that Mr. Lovejoy sent me home to my master. It was five weeks before I was able to walk again. During this time it was necessary to have some one to supply my place at the office and I lost the situation.

Though slavery is thought, by some, to be mild in Missouri, when compared with the cotton, sugar and rice growing states, yet no part of our slave-holding country is more noted for the barbarity of its inhabitants than St. Louis. It was here that Col. Harney, a United States officer, whipped a slave woman to death. It was here that Francis McIntosh, a free colored man from Pittsburg, was taken from the steamboat Flora and burned at the stake. During a residence of eight years in this city, numerous cases of extreme cruelty came under my own observation; to record them all would occupy more space than could possibly be allowed in this little volume.

A few weeks after, on our downward passage, the boat took on board, at Hannibal, a drove of slaves, bound for the New Orleans market. They numbered from fifty to sixty, consisting of men and women from eighteen to forty years of age. A drove of slaves on a southern steamboat, bound for the cotton or sugar regions, is an occurrence so common, that no one, not even the passengers, appear to notice it, though they clank their chains at every step. There was, however, one in this gang that attracted the attention of the passengers and crew. It was a beautiful girl, apparently about twenty years of age, perfectly white, with straight light hair and blue eyes. But it was not the whiteness of her skin that created such a sensation among those who gazed upon her - it was her almost unparalleled beauty. She had been on the boat but a short time, before the attention of all the passengers, including the ladies, had been called to her, and the common topic of conversation was about the beautiful slave-girl. She was not in chains. The man who claimed this article of human merchandise was a Mr. Walker - a well known slave-trader, residing in St. There was a general anxiety among the passengers and crew to learn the history of the girl. Her master kept close by her side, and it would have been considered impudent for any of the passengers to have spoken to her, and the crew were not allowed to have any conversation with them. When we reached St. Louis, the slaves were removed to a boat bound for New Orleans, and the history of the beautiful slave-girl remained a mystery.

The kind friend that had taken me in was named Wells Brown. He was a devoted friend of the slave; but was very old, and not in the enjoyment of good health. I remained with them twelve or fifteen days, during which time they made me some clothing, and the old gentleman purchased me a pair of boots. I found that I was about fifty or sixty miles from Dayton, in the State of Ohio, and between one and two hundred miles from Cleveland, on Lake Erie, a place I was desirous of reaching on my way to Canada.

This I know will sound strangely to the ears of people in foreign lands, but it is nevertheless true. An American citizen was fleeing from a democratic, republican, Christian government, to receive protection under the monarchy of Great Britain. While the people of the United States boast of their freedom, they at the same time keep three millions of their own citizens in chains; and while I am seated here in sight of Bunker Hill Monument, writing this narrative, I am a slave, and no law, not even in Massachusetts, can protect me from the hands of the slave-holder!

Before leaving this good Quaker friend, he inquired what my name was besides William. I told him that I had no other name. "Well," said he, "thee must have another name. Since thee has got out of slavery, thee has become a man, and men always have two names."

I told him that he was the first man to extend the hand of friendship to me, and I would give him the privilege of naming me.

"If I name thee," said he, "I shall call thee Wells Brown, after myself."

Slaveholders hide themselves behind the church. A more praying, preaching, psalm-singing people cannot be found than the slaveholders at the south. The religion of the south is referred to every day, to prove that slaveholders are good, pious men. But with all their pretensions, and all the aid which they get from the northern church, they cannot succeed in deceiving the Christian portion of the world. Their child-robbing, man-stealing, woman-whipping, chain-forging, marriage-destroying, slave-manufacturing, man-slaying religion, will not be received as genuine; and the people of the free states cannot expect to live in union with slaveholders, without becoming contaminated with slavery.

The American slave-trader, with the constitution in his hat and his license in his pocket, marches his gang of chained men and women under the very eaves of the nation's capitol. And this, too, in a country professing to be the freest nation in the world. They profess to be democrats, republicans, and to believe in the natural equality of men; that they are "all created with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." They call themselves a Christian nation; they rob three millions of their countrymen of their liberties, and then talk of their piety, their democracy, and their love of liberty.

Few persons who have visited the slave states have not, on their return, told of the gangs of slaves they had seen on their way to the southern market. This trade presents some of the most revolting and atrocious scenes which can be imagined. Slave-prisons, slave-auctions, handcuffs, whips, chains, bloodhounds, and other instruments of cruelty, are part of the furniture which belongs to the American slave-trade. It is enough to make humanity bleed at every pore, to see these implements of torture.

Known to God only is the amount of human agony and suffering which sends its cry from these slave-prisons, unheard or unheeded by man, up to His ear; mothers weeping for their children -- breaking the night-silence with the shrieks of their breaking hearts. We wish no human being to experience emotions of needless pain, but we do wish that every man, woman, and child in New England, could visit a southern slave-prison and auction-stand.

I shall never forget a scene which took place in the city of St. Louis, while I was in slavery. A man and his wife, both slaves, were brought from the country to the city, for sale. They were taken to the rooms of Austin & Savage, auctioneers.

Several slave-speculators, who are always to be found at auctions where slaves are to be sold, were present. The man was first put up, and sold to the highest bidder. The wife was next ordered to ascend the platform. I was present. She slowly obeyed the order. The auctioneer commenced, and soon several hundred dollars were bid. My eyes were intensely fixed on the face of the woman, whose cheeks were wet with tears. But a conversation between the slave and his new master attracted my attention. I drew near them to listen. The slave was begging his new master to purchase his wife. Said he, "Master, if you will only buy Fanny, I know you will get the worth of your money. She is a good cook, a good washer, and her last mistress liked her very much. If you will only buy her how happy I shall be." The new master replied that he did not want her but if she sold cheap he would purchase her. I watched the countenance of the man while the different persons were bidding on his wife. When his new master bid on his wife you could see the smile upon his countenance, and the tears stop; but as soon as another would bid, you could see the countenance change and the tears start afresh.

From this change of countenance one could see the workings of the inmost soul. But this suspense did not last long; the wife was struck off to the highest bidder, who proved not to be the owner of her husband. As soon as they became aware that they were to be separated, they both burst into tears; and as she descended from the auction-stand, the husband, walking up to her and taking her by the hand, said, "Well, Fanny, we are to part forever, on earth; you have been a good wife to me. I did all that I could to get my new master to buy you; but he did not want you, and all I have to say is, I hope you will try to meet me in heaven. I shall try to meet you there." The wife made no reply, but her sobs and cries told, too well, her own feelings. I saw the countenances of a number of whites who were present, and whose eyes were dim with tears at hearing the man bid his wife farewell. Such are but common occurrences in the slave states. At these auction-stands, bones, muscles, sinews, blood and nerves, of human beings, are sold with as much indifference as a farmer in the north sells a horse or sheep.


William Wells Brown

Born a slave, William Wells Brown (1815-1884) escaped to freedom and became the first African American to publish a novel or a play. He was also an abolitionist and an internationally acclaimed lecturer.

William Wells Brown was born in Lexington, Ky. His mother was a slave and, according to tradition, the daughter of Daniel Boone, the frontiersman. His father was the owner of the plantation on which William was born. While still a boy William was hired out to the captain of a St. Louis steamboat in the booming Mississippi River trade. After a year he was put to work in the printing office of Elijah P. Lovejoy, a well-known abolitionist.

While working again on a steamboat, Brown escaped, and by 1834 he had made his way to freedom in Canada. He became a steward aboard a ship plying the Great Lakes. In the course of his travels he was befriended by a Quaker, and he named himself after his benefactor. Brown taught himself to read and write. He also became an important link in the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape to freedom, sometimes concealing them aboard his ship until they could be put ashore in a friendly port. In 1834 he had married a free African American woman, and they had two daughters.

In 1843 Brown was invited to lecture for the Anti-Slavery Society and soon gained renown as a public speaker. The American Peace Society chose him as their representative to the Peace Congress in Paris in 1849. The American Anti-Slavery Society provided him with letters of commendation introducing him to many distinguished Europeans, and he was soon well known in intellectual circles in Europe. Among his friends were the English statesman Richard Cobden and the French novelist Victor Hugo. Brown remained in Europe for several years. He found time to study medicine and was active in the temperance, woman's-suffrage, and prison reform movements.

Brown's first work, The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave (1842), was a recollection of his life. He published a collection of his poems, The Anti-Slavery Harp, in 1843. His Three Years in Europe and his first novel, Clotelle, or the President's Daughter, a melodramatic commentary on interracial love, were published in London in 1853. The following year he produced Sketches of Places and People Abroad, in which he offered impressions of Cobden, Alexis de Tocqueville, Hugo, and other European notables of the day. His play, The Escape, or a Leap for Freedom, was published in 1858.

Other works by Brown include The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius and His Achievements, written in support of emancipation (1863) The Negro in the American Rebellion (1866) The Rising Sun (1874) and My SouthernHome (1884). He was a contributor to Frederick Douglass's paper, the Liberator, and to the National Anti-Slavery Standard and the London Daily News. Brown died on Nov. 6, 1884, at his home in Chelsea, Mass.


William Wells Brown

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William Wells Brown, (born 1814?, near Lexington, Ky., U.S.—died Nov. 6, 1884, Chelsea, Mass.), American writer who is considered to be the first African-American to publish a novel. He was also the first to have a play and a travel book published.

Brown was born to a black slave mother and a white slaveholding father. He grew up near St. Louis, Mo., where he served various masters, including the abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy. Brown escaped in 1834 and adopted the name of a Quaker, Wells Brown, who aided him when he was a runaway. He settled in the Great Lakes region before moving to the Boston area. In 1847 his popular autobiography Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave was published. Its highly dramatic content is set forth in a remarkably detached style. Having educated himself, Brown began lecturing on abolitionism and temperance reform. His antislavery lectures in Europe inspired Three Years in Europe (1852), which was expanded as The American Fugitive in Europe (1855).

Brown’s only novel, Clotel (1853), tells the story of the daughters and granddaughters of President Thomas Jefferson and his slave Currer. His only published play is The Escape or, A Leap for Freedom (1858), a melodrama, with notable comic moments, about two slaves who secretly marry. Brown’s historical writings include The Black Man (1863), The Negro in the American Rebellion (1867), and The Rising Son (1873). His final book, My Southern Home (1880), contains miscellanea about slave life, abolitionism, and racism.


Little Known Black History Fact: William Wells Brown

William Wells Brown was a former slave who went on to become, by most accounts, the first African-American novelist to publish a novel and the first African-American playwright to publish a play. This came after a dramatic escape from slavery and the assistance of a good Samaritan.

Brown was born into slavery around 1814. At 19, he was sold to a Missouri steamboat company owner and staged an escape when the ship carrying him docked in Ohio. In the dead of winter, Brown traveled on foot and came across a Quaker who gave him his full name and put him on the path of education.

Escaping to the north and settling in Boston, Brown became a notable abolitionist writer and speaker, but as a fugitive, he felt his freedom could be better realized in Europe as slavery was outlawed in England and France. With his two young daughters, Brown traveled across Europe drawing crowds among those who opposed the act of slavery. With the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 enacted, Brown opted to stay in Europe until his rich friends were able to purchase his freedom.

While in Europe, Brown penned and published the book Clotel or The President’s Daughter, a fictional account of two bi-racial daughters of President Thomas Jefferson, in 1853. Five years later, the play “The Escape” or “A Leap For Freedom” was published although it wasn’t produced into a full work until 1971 at Emerson College.

After returning to the United States in 1854, Brown continued to write and lecture, picking up an interest in homeopathic medicine along the way. He became a medical doctor and opened a practice. Brown passed in 1884 at the age of 70, according to most records.


Brown, William Wells

William Wells Brown was an African American antislavery lecturer, groundbreaking novelist, playwright and historian. He is widely considered to have been the first African American to publish works in several major literary genres. Known for his continuous political activism especially in his involvement with the anti-slavery movement, Brown is widely acclaimed for the effectiveness of many of his writings.

Brown was born to a white father and enslaved mother on a plantation outside of Lexington, Kentucky, most likely in 1814. He spent his childhood and much of his young adult life as a slave in St. Louis, Missouri working a variety of trades. Brown slipped away from his owner’s steamboat while it was docked in Cincinnati and thereafter declared himself a free man on New Year’s Day 1834. Shortly thereafter he was taken in and helped to safety by Mr. and Mrs. Wells Brown, a white Quaker family. William would adopt their names in respect for the help they provided him.

William Wells Brown settled briefly in Cleveland, Ohio where he married a free African American woman. They had two daughters. Later Brown moved his family to Buffalo, New York where he spent nine years working both as a steamboat worker on Lake Erie and a conductor for the Underground Railroad.

By 1843 Brown was lecturing regularly on his experiences in slavery for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society. By that time he also became deeply committed to lecturing on behalf of women’s rights and temperance laws. It was this involvement as a prominent speaker that many historians and scholars suggest provided the trajectory for his later career as a writer. By 1845, in the wake of the tremendous success of Frederick Douglass’s narrative autobiography, Brown published his own Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself. The resounding success of his narrative led Brown to travel across Europe between 1849 and 1854 where he delivered more than a thousand speeches. He also wrote two additional books. Three Years in Europe, published in 1852, was the first travel book ever to be written by an African American while Clotel, which appeared a year later, is one of the earliest novels written by an African American and the first to be published by a British publishing house. In 1858 his play The Escape became the first play ever to be published by an African American.

As slavery ended, Brown’s career as a traveling speaker slowed and he eventually settled in Boston where he lived until his death in 1884.

For More Information: William E. Farrison, William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969)

Paul Jefferson, The Travels of William Wells Brown (New York: Markus Wiener, 1991)

Herb Boyd, Autobiography of a People: Three Centuries of African American History Told by Those Who Lived It (New York: Doubleday, 2000).

Contributor: Engledew, Devin John, University of Washington


William Wells Brown - History

William Wells Brown was born in the year of 1814, the exact date is unknown. He was a prominent black abolitionist lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian.

William was born into slavery in Montgomery County, Kentucky , near the town of Mount Sterling , to a black mother and her white slavemaster. He served various white masters, including the abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy . William worked in Lovejoy&rsquos printing office before he was killed, by a pro-slavery mob and it ignited a spark in himself to fight for black freedom. He mostly taught himself how to read and write, and eagerly sought more education.

After being hired out to several more masters, William had enough. He attempted escape several times before his last escape landed him on a steamboat to Cincinnati, Ohio , a free state , when he was only 19 years of age. With intense study he became extremely good at reading and writing and crafted several journals documenting the conditions and treatment of Black slaves in America.

While working in Europe as an indentured servant he authored his popular autobiography Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave in 1847 which was banned in many states of the US. William married, had two children and took the surnames of Wells Brown, from a Quaker friend who helped his escape by providing food, clothing and money. William and his wife would eventually drift apart, but he continued to raise his two children.

Eventually, he would return to America and settled in Boston, Massachusetts , another free State. There he joined the abolitionist lecture circuit in the North. A contemporary of Frederick Douglass , Brown was overshadowed by Douglass&rsquos charismatic oration and the two often feuded publicly.

His novel Clotel authored in 1853, was the first novel written by an enslaved African in America, was published in London , England , where he was living at the time. The book would not be published in the United States until several years after his death and the total abolishment of slavery in America.

Brown was a pioneer in several different literary genres, including travel writing, fiction, and drama. In 1858 he became the first published Black playwright, and often read from this work on the lecture circuit. Following the Civil War, in 1867 he published what is considered the first history of Blacks in the Revolutionary War .

Over the next two decades, he focused on historical works. These included two histories of the black race, another history on blacks and whites in the American South, and a rare military history of African-Americans in the American Civil War. Brown practiced medicine in Boston until his death in Chelsea, MA, on November 6, 1884.

William Wells Brown was among the first writers inducted to the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, established in 2013. A public school was named for him in Lexington, Kentucky .


The Impossible Moral Dilemmas of Slavery: William Wells Brown and the Slave Trade

W illiam Wells Brown possessed immense and various talents. Born into slavery in Kentucky around 1814, Brown grew up in Missouri, fled enslavement in the early 1830s, and by the early 1840s had become a rising star of the antislavery movement. He spent several years traveling the abolitionist lecture circuit in the northern states, published a bestselling narrative of his life in 1847, and compiled an antislavery songbook in 1848 for use at abolitionist meetings. Brown left the United States for Europe in 1849 and spent the better part of the next five years in England, where he continued giving lectures, often concluding them with song and illustrating them with magic lantern slides and panoramas that brought his story to life for audiences. While in England, he also wrote a travelogue and became the first African American novelist with the publication of Clotel, a story loosely based on what were at the time only rumors about the children of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. Brown continued lecturing and writing after returning to the land of his birth, churning out biographies, histories, a work about black Civil War soldiers, a second memoir, and a number of plays that he also performed and that made him the first black American playwright. In his later years, even as he continued to publish he became active in the temperance movement, studied homeopathic medicine, and opened a medical practice in the Boston area. Though often overshadowed in life and in historical memory by his contemporary Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown was a man of unparalleled energy, extraordinary drive, and deep conviction.

He was also a man haunted by a period of his adolescence that he recalled as “the longest year” he ever lived and that speaks to some of the most profoundly hopeless and cruel moral positions in which enslaved people could find themselves. In his youth, Brown labored at a number of different jobs both for his owner and for a series of white men to whom he was hired out. None of those jobs proved more nightmarish than his work as an assistant for a St. Louis slave trader named James Walker. Hired to Walker during what was roughly his eighteenth year, Brown found the prospect of working for a slave trader so horrifying that even decades later his famed capacity for expression failed him, writing that “no one can tell my emotions” and that he was “at a loss for language to express my feelings.”

It is not hard to understand why. Over the course of his year working for Walker, Brown helped escort three different coffles of enslaved people, several dozen at a time, from St. Louis down the Mississippi River via steamboat to Natchez and New Orleans. He rode horseback with Walker through the Missouri countryside, accumulating slaves for sale and walking them enchained for miles along roads worse than any he had ever seen. He witnessed Walker snatch a crying infant from one enslaved woman in a coffle, “as you would a cat by the leg,” and bestow it on an acquaintance because he found the noisiness of the child irritating. Brown saw an enslaved woman whom Walker had separated from her husband and children leap from a steamboat and drown herself rather than go on without them. He saw men and women kept in cages for days awaiting sale. He helped stow enslaved cargo in chains below decks and noted how “it was impossible to keep that part of the boat clean.” He followed orders to shave the beards of older enslaved men, pluck out conspicuous gray hairs, and blacken what remained to facilitate Walker’s fraudulent sales that disguised the true age of his merchandise. Brown made sure that the people Walker offered for sale were dressed in fresh clothing and then saw them forced to dance, often in tears, so that they might appear cheerful for prospective buyers.

Brown, of course, had no choice but to do as he was told. He never considered Walker an especially vicious man despite his actions and his occupation, but given that Walker also sent him to a jailer to be whipped because Brown accidentally overfilled some wine glasses of Walker’s potential customers, Brown knew Walker was not a man to be trifled with or defied. Still, we can only imagine how it all sat with him – the roles he played in destroying enslaved families, in humiliating those destined for sale, in creating despair so deep that death seemed a respite. Though Brown was a reluctant victim of the trade rather than a willing perpetrator of it, the terrible year he spent in Walker’s service plagued him for the rest of his life and surely fueled the fury of his efforts to end slavery for those left behind after he made his escape.

A number of years after he fled the South, Brown made his way to Cleveland, where he used his skills and experience working on steamboats to ferry fugitive slaves across Lake Erie to Canada. In 1842 alone, he conveyed sixty-nine people to freedom. Whether the dozens he saved eased his conscience for the dozens he had been forced to abandon is unknown. It seems unlikely. Nothing could wipe the things he had seen from his mind, even as nothing in his prodigious arsenal of language could enable him to convey those things properly and out loud to others. After all, as he would say to an anti-slavery society at a lecture in 1847, “were I about to tell you the evils of Slavery, to represent to you the Slave in his lowest degradation, I should wish to take you, one at a time, and whisper it to you. Slavery has never been represented Slavery never can be represented.” Brown was a man who made his mark in writing, but ultimately there were no words.

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About the Author

Joshua D. Rothman is Professor of History and Chair of the Department of History at the University of Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (2012), and is currently working on a book about the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard.


William Wells Brown (ca. 1814-1884)

William Wells Brown was an African American antislavery lecturer, groundbreaking novelist, playwright and historian. He is widely considered to have been the first African American to publish works in several major literary genres. Known for his continuous political activism especially in his involvement with the anti-slavery movement, Brown is widely acclaimed for the effectiveness of many of his writings.

Brown was born to a white father and enslaved mother on a plantation outside of Lexington, Kentucky, most likely in 1814. He spent his childhood and much of his young adult life as a slave in St. Louis, Missouri working a variety of trades. Brown slipped away from his owner’s steamboat while it was docked in Cincinnati, Ohio and thereafter declared himself a free man on New Year’s Day 1834. Shortly thereafter he was taken in and helped to safety by Mr. and Mrs. Wells Brown, a white Quaker family. William would adopt their names in respect for the help they provided him.

William Wells Brown settled briefly in Cleveland, Ohio where he married a free African American woman. They had two daughters. Later Brown moved his family to Buffalo, New York where he spent nine years working both as a steamboat worker on Lake Erie and a conductor for the Underground Railroad.

By 1843 Brown was lecturing regularly on his experiences in slavery for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society. By that time he also became deeply committed to lecturing on behalf of women’s rights and temperance laws. It was this involvement as a prominent speaker that many historians and scholars suggest provided the trajectory for his later career as a writer. By 1845, in the wake of the tremendous success of Frederick Douglass’s narrative autobiography, Brown published his own Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself. The resounding success of his narrative led Brown to travel across Europe between 1849 and 1854 where he delivered more than a thousand speeches. He also wrote two additional books. Three Years in Europe, published in 1852, was the first travel book ever to be written by an African American while Clotel, which appeared a year later, is one of the earliest novels written by an African American and the first to be published by a British publishing house. In 1858 his play The Escape became the first play ever to be published by an African American.

As slavery ended, Brown’s career as a traveling speaker slowed and he eventually settled in Boston where he lived until his death in 1884.


Brown, William Wells (1814-1884)

Introduction: William Wells Brown was an African American anti-slavery lecturer, groundbreaking novelist, playwright and historian. He is widely considered to have been the first African American to publish works in several major literary genres. Known for his continuous political activism especially in his involvement with the anti-slavery movement, Brown is widely acclaimed for the effectiveness of many of his writings.

Early Years: Brown was born to a white father and enslaved mother on a plantation outside of Lexington, Kentucky, most likely in 1814. He spent his childhood and much of his young adult life as a slave in St. Louis, Missouri working a variety of trades. Brown slipped away from his owner’s steamboat while it was docked in Cincinnati, Ohio and thereafter declared himself a free man on New Year’s Day 1834. Shortly thereafter he was taken in and helped to safety by Mr. and Mrs. Wells Brown, a white Quaker family. William would adopt their names in respect for the help they provided him.

William Wells Brown settled briefly in Cleveland, Ohio where he married a free African American woman. They had two daughters. Later Brown moved his family to Buffalo, New York where he spent nine years working both as a steamboat worker on Lake Erie and a conductor for the underground railroad.

Career: By 1843 Brown was lecturing regularly on his experiences in slavery for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society. By that time he also became deeply committed to lecturing on behalf of women’s rights and temperance laws. Anti-Slavery SocietyIt was this involvement as a prominent speaker that many historians and scholars suggest provided the trajectory for his later career as a writer. By 1845, in the wake of the tremendous success of Frederick Douglass’s narrative autobiography, Brown published his own Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself. The resounding success of his narrative led Brown to travel across Europe between 1849 and 1854 where he delivered more than a thousand speeches. He also wrote two additional books. Three Years in Europe, published in 1852, was the first travel book ever to be written by an African American while Clotel, which appeared a year later, is one of the earliest novels written by an African American and the first to be published by a British publishing house. In 1858 his play The Escape became the first play ever to be published by an African American.

As slavery ended, Brown’s career as a traveling speaker slowed and he eventually settled in Boston where he lived until his death in 1884.

Boyd, Herb (2000). Autobiography of a People: Three Centuries of African American History Told by Those Who Lived It. New York: Doubleday.

Farrison, William E. (1969). William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jefferson, Paul (1991). The Travels of William Wells Brown. New York: Markus Wiener.


By Ezra Greenspan

If the publishing industry reflects the American zeitgeist, things have changed when it comes to black American historical figures. As a graduate student at Harvard decades ago, I came across William Wells Brown, the fugitive slave, abolitionist, lecturer, travelogue writer, novelist and performer whose wide-ranging intelligence turned a gaze on white people (for a change). Back then he was to be found in only one full-length biography, William Edward Farrison’s “William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer” (1969). Published by the University of Chicago Press in the twilight of the “second Reconstruction” and at the dawning of African-American studies, it depicted Brown as a representative black American. In the absence of the biographical scholarship coming after 1969, Brown’s colleagues remained ill defined. Farrison’s biography was reviewed only in publishing trade papers and a couple of history journals. What was the problem?

It wasn’t Brown’s lack of an interesting life: more on that momentarily. The main problem was that 20th-century American culture accommodated only one 19th-­century black man, a spot already taken by the monumental, best-selling Frederick Douglass. Another problem was theoretical: Farrison published his biography before the flowering of two other fields crucial to a full appreciation of Brown’s public life — the history of the book and performance art.

A generation and more after Farrison’s biography, we are better able to grasp Brown’s collegial network, his publishing infrastructure and his role as a pioneering performance artist. Ezra Greenspan’s fine new biography takes full advantage of what now can be seen and said.

Greenspan, an English professor at Southern Methodist University, has written a highly sophisticated biography that appreciates Brown’s many and varied forms of self-expression. This deep and wide depiction of Brown within his several contexts rests upon a patchwork of sources, American and European — for Brown, despite his many books, left no archive.

The child who would be William Wells Brown was born enslaved in Kentucky, in about 1814, the son of his owner’s cousin. In St. Louis, given the job of tending a young charge also called William, his name was changed to Sandford with the carelessness characteristic of slave naming. As Sandford he worked in his owner’s medical office and on the Mississippi River’s ships and docks. After several unsuccessful attempts at escape, one with his mother, he finally fled St. Louis at about age 19. He retook his own name William and added Wells Brown in honor of the Quaker who had rescued him from starving and freezing in Ohio.

As a self-made free man, Brown worked the waterfronts in Cleveland and Buffalo, quickly acquiring literacy and joining the antislavery movement. By the early 1840s, he was lecturing full time and rising among abolitionists.

The details of itinerancy constitute one of the many strong points of Greenspan’s biography. In rural New York, Brown traveled awful roads and stayed with sympathizers in primitive accommodations. Week after week, he traveled those roads and spoke every night, spreading the Garrisonian gospel of antislavery, peace and temperance. Like many an activist, then and now, Brown saw his first marriage fall apart. But dedication to his cause also prompted his self-education and honed his skills as a public speaker. Abolitionism likewise offered examples for emulation.

Brown first met Frederick Douglass, antislavery’s fugitive star, in 1843. Born in about 1818, Douglass was just then embarking on his phenomenal career as a public intellectual. Although his book “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Doug­lass, an American Slave” (1845) was not the first of its kind, it was far and away the most widely read. Brown soon followed with “Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave” (1847).

The abolitionist movement was built on testimony of lecturers like Brown and, among others, Sojourner Truth, whose words gained power by virtue of their personal experience of enslavement. Antislavery fugitive ex-slaves often published their memoirs through a well-developed industry of publishers, photographers, engravers and distributors. Greenspan’s attention to the particulars of Brown’s publishing ventures contributes enormously to our understanding of how 19th-century authors got their works into the hands of a varied reading public in the United States and in Britain, where Brown published his best-known works.

With the successful publication of his “Narrative,” Brown once again followed in Douglass’s footsteps, this time to Britain, via the 1849 Peace Congress in Paris. After nearly three weeks of talking antislavery in Ireland and 10 days in Paris, Brown settled in England for the next five years. Lecturing across Britain from his London base, Brown supported himself as a performance artist and author, ending lectures with singing and collection taking. He carried around copies for sale of his “Narrative” and a compilation of songs for meetings, the “Anti-Slavery Harp,” that he had completed in 1848.

In Britain, Brown illustrated his lectures, initially using magic lantern slides in darkened rooms, then displaying his own version of the panoramas, popular in America, of the drama of westward expansion. But his “A Description of William Wells Brown’s Original Panoramic Views of the Scenes in the Life of an American Slave, From His Birth in Slavery to His Death or His Escape to His First Home of Freedom on British Soil” (1850) corrected the conventional, whitewashed American history by reinserting people of color and slavery.

Brown had initially planned on remaining in Britain only one year. But the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 exiled him beyond slave catchers’ reach until 1854, when British friends purchased his freedom, as they had Frederick Douglass’s. Brown left his panorama in Britain. But he brought with him his two best-known books: a travelogue and the first novel by a black American author. Both books went through several editions and changes of title, beginning as “Three Years in Europe” (1852) and “Clotel” (1853). The former was the first travelogue by a black American the second was inspired by legends around Thomas Jefferson’s children with Sally Hemings.

Back in Boston, Brown continued writing, notably “The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements” (1863), a collective biography, and “The Negro in the American Rebellion” (1867), on black Civil War soldiers, both groundbreaking texts aimed at popular audiences. During the 1850s, Brown wrote and performed plays, “Experience Or, How to Give a Northern Man a Backbone” and “The Escape Or, A Leap for Freedom.” By the 1860s, however, Brown returned to medicine, work he had first done as an enslaved helper of his owner in St. Louis. At his death in 1884, aged about 70, he was known as Dr. William W. Brown.

Ezra Greenspan’s biography offers the definitive treatment of an extraordinary 19th-century American. Its depth of field keeps Brown in focus as a singular individual while capturing those around him with clarity. That said, Greenspan’s pages occasionally judge Brown’s autobiographical truth self-righteously. Early on, Brown is called “deliberately misleading” later on, he is “shifty as always.” Taken as a whole, however, this biography makes a tremendous contribution to our understanding of one fascinating American and the networks he operated in so variously.


Watch the video: William Wells Brown: An African-American Life


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