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William Wells Brown
November 6, 1816 – November 6, 1884
Abolitionist, Novelist, Playwright and Historian


William Wells Brown was a prominent abolitionist lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian. Born into slavery in the Southern United States, Brown escaped to the North, where he worked for abolitionist causes and was a prolific writer. Brown was a pioneer in several different literary genres, including travel writing, fiction, and drama, and wrote what is considered to be the first novel by an African American.

William Wells Brown was born into slavery near Lexington, Kentucky. His mother, Elizabeth, was owned by a Dr. Young and had seven children, all with different fathers. (In addition to Brown, her children were Solomon, Leander, Benjamin, Joseph, Milford, and Elizabeth.) Brown's father was George Higgins, a white plantation owner and cousin of the owner of the plantation where Brown was born. Even though Young promised Higgins never to sell the boy, he was sold multiple times before he was twenty years old. Brown spent the majority of his youth in St. Louis. His masters hired him out to work on the Missouri River, then a major thoroughfare for the slave trade. He made several attempts to escape, and on New Year's Day of 1834, he successfully slipped away from a steamboat at a dock in Cincinnati, Ohio. He adopted the name of a Quaker friend of his, who had helped him after his escape by providing him with food, clothes and some money. Shortly after gaining his freedom, he met and married Elizabeth Schooner, a free African-American woman, from whom he separated and later divorced, causing a minor scandal. Together they had three daughters. From 1836 to about 1845, Brown made his home in Buffalo, New York, where he served as a conductor for the Underground Railroad and as a steam boatman on Lake Erie, a position he used to ferry escaped slaves to freedom in Canada. There Brown became active in the abolitionist movement by joining several anti-slavery societies and the Negro Convention Movement.

Abolition Orator and Writer

Brown became further engaged in the abolitionist movement by delivering lectures in New York and Massachusetts. While his initial cause was prohibition, he soon focused on anti-slavery efforts. His speeches reveal his belief in the power of moral suasion and in the importance of nonviolence. He often attacked the supposed American ideal of democracy and the use of religion to promote submissiveness among slaves. Brown also constantly refuted the idea of black inferiority. Reaching beyond America’s borders, he traveled to Britain in the early 1850s and recruited supporters for the American abolitionist cause. An article in the Scotch Independent reported the following:

"By dint of resolution, self-culture, and force of character, he has rendered himself a popular lecturer to a British audience, and vigorous expositor of the evils and atrocities of that system whose chains he has shaken off so triumphantly and forever. We may safely pronounce William Wells Brown a remarkable man, and a full refutation of the doctrine of the inferiority of the negro."

Thanks in part to his prestige as a powerful orator, he was invited to the National Convention of Colored Citizens, where he met other prominent abolitionists. When the Liberty Party formed, he chose to remain independent, believing that the abolitionist movement should avoid becoming entrenched in politics. He continued to support the Garrisonian approach to abolitionism, sharing his own experiences and observations of slavery in order to convince others to support the cause.

Literary Works

Brown's involvement with abolitionism was not limited to lectures. In 1847, he published the Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself, which became a bestseller second only to Frederick Douglass' narrative. In it, he critiques his master’s lack of Christian values and the brutal use of violence in master-slave relations. When Brown lived in Britain, he wrote more publications, including travel accounts and plays.

His first novel, entitled Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter: a Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, is credited as being the first novel written by an African American. However, because the novel was published in England, the book was not the first African-American novel published in the United States. This credit goes to either: Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859) or Julia C. Collins' The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride (1865).

However, most scholars agree that Brown is the first published African-American playwright. Brown wrote two plays, Experience; or, How to Give a Northern Man a Backbone (1856, unpublished and no longer extant) and The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (published 1858), which he read aloud at abolitionist meetings in lieu of the typical lecture.

Brown continually struggled with how to represent slavery "as it was" to his audiences. For instance, in an 1847 lecture to the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, Massachusetts, he said, "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 also wrote several historical works, including The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863), The Negro in the American Revolution (1867), The Rising Son (1873), and another volume of autobiography, My Southern Home (1880).

Later Life

Brown stayed abroad until 1854. This was due to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which meant that he wasn't free from being captured even in the free states. Only after a British family purchased his freedom in 1854 (the Richardson family who had done the same for Frederick Douglass), a favour he had repeatedly declined, did Brown return to the United States and continue to deliver lectures.

In a shift likely inspired by the increasingly dangerous environment for black Americans in the 1850s, he became a proponent of African American emigration to Haiti.He decided that more militant acts were necessary to gain progress in their cause. During the American Civil War and in the decades that followed, Brown continued to publish fiction and non-fiction books, securing his reputation as one of the most prolific African American writers of his time. He also played a more active role in Civil War. It was Wells who introduced Bermudian soldier Robert John Simmons to abolitionist Frances George Shaw, father of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commanding officer of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

William Wells Brown died in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1884 at the age of 68.

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