William Wells Brown

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William Wells Brown
William Wells Brown.jpg
Born 1814
Lexington, Kentucky
Died November 6, 1884(1884-11-06)
Chelsea, Massachusetts
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 Lexington, Kentucky, 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, and was among the first writers inducted to the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.[1]

Brown was lecturing in England when the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law was passed in the US; he stayed overseas for several years to avoid the risk of capture and re-enslavement. After his freedom was purchased in 1854 by a British couple, he and his two daughters returned to the US. He rejoined the abolitionist lecture circuit. A contemporary of Frederick Douglass, Wells Brown was overshadowed by the charismatic orator and the two feuded publicly.[2]

Biography[edit]

William was born into slavery in 1814 in Lexington, Kentucky, as his mother Elizabeth was a slave. She was held 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 his master Dr. Young. Higgins had formally recognized William as his son and made his cousin Young promise not to sell the boy.[3] But Young did sell him with his mother. William was sold several times before he was twenty years old.

William spent the majority of his youth in St. Louis. His masters hired him out to work on steamboats on the Missouri River, then a major thoroughfare for steamships and the slave trade. In 1833, he and his mother escaped together, but they were captured in Illinois. In 1834, Brown made a second escape attempt, successfully slipping away from a steamboat when it 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[edit]

In 1834, his first year of freedom, at age 20 Brown married Elizabeth Schooner, with whom he had two daughters. They later became estranged. In 1851, Elizabeth died in the United States; Brown had been in England since 1849 with their daughters, lecturing on the abolitionist circuit. After his freedom was purchased in 1854 by a British couple, Brown returned with his daughters to the US, settling in Boston.[4]

On April 12, 1860, the 44-year-old Brown married again, to 25-year-old Anna Elizabeth Gray in Boston.[5] [4]

Move to New York[edit]

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, or Detroit, Michigan or across the lake to Canada. He later wrote that from May to December 1842, seven months, he had helped 69 fugitives reach Canada.[6][7] Brown became active in the abolitionist movement in Buffalo by joining several anti-slavery societies and the Negro Convention Movement. Tens of thousands of slaves escaped successfully; the First Report of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada estimated that by 1852, 30,000 "Negro refugees" had reached Canada.[8]

Years in Europe[edit]

In 1849, Brown left the United States with his two young daughters to travel in the British Isles to lecture against slavery. He wanted them to gain the education he had been denied.[9][4] He was also selected as a representative of the US that year at the International Peace Congress in Paris. Given passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in the US, he chose to stay in England until 1854, when his freedom was purchased. As a highly visible public figure in the US, he was at risk for capture as a fugitive. Slave catchers were paid high bounties to return slaves to their owners, and the new law required enforcement even by free states and their citizens, although many resisted.

Brown lectured widely to antislavery circuits in the UK 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."[10]

Brown also used this time 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.”[11]

At the International Peace Conference in Paris, Brown faced opposition while representing the country that had enslaved him. Later he confronted American slaveholders on the grounds of the Crystal Palace.[12]

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.[13] In his Letter XIV, Brown wrote about his meeting with the Christian philosopher Thomas Dick in 1851.[14]

Abolition orator and writer[edit]

After his return to the US, 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. He shared his own experiences and insight into slavery in order to convince others to support the cause.

Literary works[edit]

In 1847, he published his memoir, the Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself, which became a bestseller across the United States, 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.

Clotel, or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States

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, was published in London in 1853. It portrays the fictional plight of two mulatto daughters born to Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves. It is believed to be the first novel written by an African American.[15]

Historically, Jefferson's household was known to include numerous mixed-race slaves, and there were rumors since the early 19th century that he had children with a slave concubine, Sally Hemings. In 1826 Jefferson freed five mixed-race slaves in his will; historians now believe that two, Madison and Eston Hemings, were among his four surviving children from his long-term relationship with Sally Hemings.[16]

As Brown's 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 after his return to the US: 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."[17]

Brown also wrote several histories, 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 American Revolutionary War; and The Rising Son (1873). His last book was another memoir, My Southern Home (1880).

Later life[edit]

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.[18]

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.

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.[19]

William Wells Brown died on his birthday in Chelsea in 1884 at the age of 70.

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • He is recognized as the first African American to publish a novel.
  • A school in Lexington, his home town, is named after him.
  • He was among the first writers inducted to the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.[20]

Writings[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Kentucky's First Writer
  2. ^ The Works of William Wells Brown: Using His 'Strong, Manly Voice', Eds. Paula Garrett and Hollis Robbins, Oxford University Press, 2006, xvii-xxxvi.
  3. ^ T.N.R. Rogers, "Introduction", William Wells Brown, Clotel or The President's Daughter. Mineola/NewYork: Dover Publications Inc., 2004
  4. ^ a b c See confession letter published in The National Era, reprinted in The Works of William Wells Brown
  5. ^ Farrison, William Edward. William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1969), p. 290.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Farrison, William E. "William Wells Brown in Buffalo", Journal of Negro History, v.XXXIX, no. 4, October 1954.
  8. ^ Benjamin Drew, "Preface", A North-Side View of Slavery. The Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada, Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1856
  9. ^ Garret & Robbins, xxiv.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Brown, William W. Three Years In Europe: Places I Have Seen And People I Have Met London, 1852.
  12. ^ Greenspan, Ezra William Wells Brown; A Reader, The University of Georgia, Athens & London, 2008.
  13. ^ Greenspan (2008), William Wells Brown.
  14. ^ [1]
  15. ^ Nelson, Randy F. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981: 67. ISBN 0-86576-008-X.
  16. ^ "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account", Monticello Website, accessed 22 June 2011, Quote: "Ten years later [referring to its 2000 report], TJF [Thomas Jefferson Foundation] and most historians now believe that, years after his wife's death, Thomas Jefferson was the father of the six children of Sally Hemings mentioned in Jefferson's records, including Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston Hemings."
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ BBC Tyne History.
  19. ^ Farrison (1969), p. 402
  20. ^ Kentucky's First Writer

References[edit]

External links[edit]