William Wells Brown
|William Wells Brown|
|Died||November 6, 1884
|Occupation||abolitionist, Writer, Historian.|
|Spouse(s)||(1) Elizabeth "Betsey" Schooner, 1835; (2) Annie Elizabeth Gray, 1860|
|Children||Clarissa Brown, Josephine Brown, Henrietta Brown, William Wells Brown, Jr., Clotelle Brown|
William Wells Brown (November 6, 1814 – November 6, 1884) was a prominent African-American abolitionist lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian. Born into slavery in the Southern United States, Brown escaped to the North in 1834, where he worked for abolitionist causes and was a prolific writer. His novel Clotel (1853) is considered the first novel written by an African American; it was published in London, where he was living at the time. Brown was a pioneer in several different literary genres, including travel writing, fiction, and drama. He has a school named after him in Lexington, Kentucky, and was among the first writers inducted to the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.
Lecturing in England when the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law was passed in the US, which required people in the North to aid in the capture of fugitive slaves, Brown stayed for several years to avoid the risk of capture and re-enslavement. After his freedom was purchased by a British couple in 1854, he and his family returned to the US, where he rejoined the abolitionist lecture circuit. A contemporary of Frederick Douglass, Wells Brown was overshadowed by the charismatic orator and the two feuded publicly.
William was born into slavery in Lexington, Kentucky. His mother Elizabeth was owned by Dr. Thomas Young and had seven children, each by different fathers. (In addition to William, her children were Solomon, Leander, Benjamin, Joseph, Milford, and Elizabeth.) William's father was George W. Higgins, a white planter and cousin of Elizabeth's master Dr. Young. Higgins had formally recognized William as his son and made his cousin Young promise not to sell the boy. Young did sell him, and William went through several sales before he was twenty years old.
William 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 steamships and the slave trade. In 1833, he and his mother attempted to escape, and they were captured in Illinois. In 1834, Brown made a second attempt at escape, and this time he successfully slipped away from a steamboat when docked in Cincinnati, Ohio, a free state. In freedom, he took the names of Wells Brown, a Quaker friend, who helped him after his escape by providing food, clothes and some money.
Marriage and family
In 1834, he married Elizabeth Schooner, with whom he had two daughters. In 1849, Brown and his two daughters moved to Paris to attend the International Peace Congress. In 1851, his estranged wife, Elizabeth, died, and Brown returned to the United States in 1854. In 1860, Brown married Anna Brown.
Move to New York
From 1836 to about 1845, Brown made his home in Buffalo, New York, where he worked as a steamboat man on Lake Erie. He helped many fugitive slaves gain their freedom by hiding them on the boat to take them to Buffalo, New York or Detroit, Michigan or to Canada. He later wrote that from May to December 1842, he had helped 69 fugitives get to Canada. Brown became active in the abolitionist movement in Buffalo by joining several anti-slavery societies and the Negro Convention Movement.
Years in Europe
In 1849, Brown left the United States to travel in the British Isles to lecture against slavery. After passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in the US, he chose to stay in England until 1854. As a highly visible public figure in the US, he was at risk for capture as a fugitive.
He lectured widely to local antislavery circuits to build support for the US movement. An article in the Scotch Independent reported the following:
"By dint of resolution, self-culture, and force of character, he [Brown] 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."
Brown also wanted to learn more about the cultures, religions, and different concepts of European nations. He felt that he needed always to be learning, in order to catch up and live in a society where others had been given an education when young. In his 1852 memoir of travel in Europe, he wrote,
“He who escapes from slavery at the age of twenty years, without any education, as did the writer of this letter, must read when others are asleep, if he would catch up with the rest of the world.”
In 1849 Brown was selected to attend the International Peace Conference in Paris. At the Paris Peace Conference, Brown faced opposition while representing the country that had enslaved him; later he confronted American slaveholders on the grounds of the Crystal Palace.
By then separated from his wife, he brought his two young daughters with him, to give them the education which he had been denied. Based on this journey, Brown wrote Three Years in Europe: or Places I Have Seen And People I Have Met. His travel account was popular with middle-class readers as he recounted sightseeing trips to the foundational monuments of European culture. When lecturing about slavery, he showed a slave collar as demonstration of its evils.
Abolition orator and writer
Brown gave lectures for the abolitionist movement in New York and Massachusetts. He soon focused on anti-slavery efforts. His speeches expressed his belief in the power of moral suasion and the importance of nonviolence. He often attacked the supposed American ideal of democracy and the use of religion to promote submissiveness among slaves. Brown constantly refuted the idea of black inferiority.
Due to his reputation as a powerful orator, Brown 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, and shared his own experiences and insight into slavery in order to convince others to support the cause.
In 1847, he published his memoir, the Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself, which became a bestseller second only to Frederick Douglass' slave narrative. 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 works, including travel accounts and plays. His first novel, entitled Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter: a Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853). It describes the plight of a mulatto born into the household of Thomas Jefferson, and is believed to be the first novel written by an African American. As his novel was first published in England and not until later in the United States, it is not the first African-American novel published in the US. This credit goes to either Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859) or Julia C. Collins' The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride (1865).
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 (1858). He read the latter 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 Rebellion (1867) [considered the first historical work about black soldiers in the Civil War], The Rising Son (1873), and another memoir, My Southern Home (1880).
Brown stayed abroad until 1854. Passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law had increased his risk of capture even in the free states. Only after the Richardson family of Britain purchased his freedom in 1854 (they had done the same for Frederick Douglass), did Brown return to the United States. He quickly rejoined the anti-slavery lecture circuit again.
Perhaps because of the rising social tensions in the 1850s, Brown became a proponent of African-American emigration to Haiti, an independent black republic in the Caribbean since 1804. He decided that more militant actions were needed to help the abolitionist 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 recruiting blacks to fight in the Civil War. He introduced Robert John Simmons from Bermuda to the abolitionist Francis George Shaw, father of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commanding officer of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.
On April 12, 1860, the 44-year-old Brown married 25-year-old Anna Elizabeth Gray in Boston. While continuing to write, Brown was active in the Temperance movement as a lecturer; he also studied homeopathic medicine and opened a medical practice in Boston's South End while keeping a residence in Cambridge. In 1882 he moved to the nearby city of Chelsea.
William Wells Brown died on his birthday in Chelsea in 1884 at the age of 70.
- Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself, Boston: The Anti-slavery office, 1847.
- Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself, London: C. Gilpin, 1849.
- Three Years in Europe: Or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met. London: Charles Gilpin, 1852.
- Brown, William Wells (1815-1884). Three Years in Europe, or Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met. with a Memoir of the author. 1852.
- William Wells Brown, CLOTEL; or the President's Daughter (1853), An Electronic Scholarly Edition, edited by Professor Christopher Mulvey
- The American Fugitive in Europe. Sketches of Places and People Abroad. Boston: John P. Jewett, 1855.
- The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. New York: Thomas Hamilton; Boston: R.F. Wallcut, 1863.
- The Rising Son, or The Antecedents and Advancements of the Colored Race. Boston: A. G. Brown & Co., 1873.
- My Southern Home: or, The South and Its People, Boston: A. G. Brown & Co., Publishers, 1880.
- The Negro in the American Rebellion; His Heroism and His Fidelity ...
- Kentucky's First Writer
- The Works of William Wells Brown: Using His 'Strong, Manly Voice', Eds. Paula Garrett and Hollis Robbins, Oxford University Press, 2006, xvii-xxxvi.
- T.N.R. Rogers, "Introduction", William Wells Brown, Clotel or The President's Daughter. Dover Publications Inc., Mineola/NewYork, 2004.
- See confession letter published in The National Era, reprinted in The Works of William Wells Brown.
- Brown, William Wells. "Narrative of William W. Brown", in Slave Narratives, eds William Andrews and Henry Louis Gates (Literary Classics of United States Inc, 2000), 374 -423.
- Farrison, William E. "William Wells Brown in Buffalo", Journal of Negro History, v.XXXIX, no. 4, October 1954.
- Brown, William W. The Black Man: his Antecedents, his Genius, and his Achievements, New York: Thomas Hamilton, 1963. Article from the Scotch Independent, June 20, 1852.
- Brown, William W. Three Years In Europe: Places I Have Seen And People I Have Met London, 1852.
- Greenspan, Ezra William Wells Brown; A Reader, The University of Georgia, Athens & London, 2008.
- Garret & Robbins, xxiv.
- Greenspan (2008), William Wells Brown.
- Nelson, Randy F. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981: 67. ISBN 0-86576-008-X.
- Botelho, Keith M. "'Look on this picture, and on this': Framing Shakespeare in William Wells Brown's The Escape", Comparative Drama 39:2 (Summer 2005): 187-212: 194.
- BBC Tyne History.
- Farrison, William Edward. William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1969), p. 290.
- Farrison (1969), p. 402
- African American Registry
- William Wells Brown, Wright American Fiction, 1851-1875
- William Wells Brown, CLOTEL, An Electronic Scholarly Edition, edited by Professor Christopher Mulvey
- The Louverture Project: William Wells Brown on Jean-Jacques Dessalines - Excerpt from The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements.
- The Works of William Wells Brown: Using His "Strong, Manly Voice," Eds. Paula Garrett and Hollis Robbins. Oxford University Press, 2006.
- R.J.M. Blackett, "William Wells Brown", American National Biography Online
- William E. Farrison, "William Wells Brown in Buffalo", The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 39, No. 4 (October 1954), pp. 298–314, JSTOR
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to William Wells Brown.|
|Wikisource has original works written by or about:
- Clottelle: or the Southern Heroine, hypertext from American Studies at the University of Virginia.
- The Louverture Project: William Wells Brown, "Toussaint L'Ouverture", in The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863).
- The Louverture Project: Dessalines William Wells Brown, "Jean-Jacques Dessalines", in The Black Man, His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863).