William Wells Brown, Abolitionist Lecturer, Novelist; Playwright, and Historian

William Wells Brown, Abolitionist Lecturer, Novelist; Playwright, and Historian


William Wells Brown (circa 1814 – November 6, 1884) was a prominent African-American abolitionist lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian in the United States. Born into slavery in Montgomery County, Kentucky, near the town of Mount Sterling, Brown escaped to Ohio in 1834 at the age of 20. He settled in Boston, Massachusetts, where he worked for abolitionist causes and became a prolific writer. While working for abolition, Brown also supported causes including: temperance, women’s suffrage, pacifism, prison reform, and an anti-tobacco movement.[1] His novel Clotel (1853), considered the first novel written by an African American, was published in London, England, where he resided at the time; it was later published in the United States.

Brown was a pioneer in several different literary genres, including travel writing, fiction, and drama. In 1858 he became the first published African-American 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 African Americans in the Revolutionary War. He was among the first writers inducted to the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, established in 2013.[2] A public school was named for him in Lexington, Kentucky.

Brown was lecturing in England when the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law was passed in the US; as its provisions increased the risk of capture and re-enslavement, he stayed overseas for several years. He traveled throughout Europe. After his freedom was purchased in 1854 by a British couple, he and his two daughters returned to the US, where he rejoined the abolitionist lecture circuit in the North. A contemporary of Frederick Douglass, Brown was overshadowed by the charismatic orator and the two feuded publicly.[3]

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, or Detroit, Michigan or across the lake to Canada. He later wrote that during the seven-month period of time from May to December 1842, he had helped 69 fugitives reach Canada.[10][11] Brown became active in the abolitionist movement in Buffalo by joining several anti-slavery societies and the Negro Convention Movement. Brown’s work in anti-slavery societies often included public speaking, and he frequently used music as part of his performance. Brown’s use of music in his speeches emphasizes music’s role in the anti-slavery movement of the 1840s.[12] While living in Buffalo, Brown also organized a Temperance Society, which quickly gained 500 members. At the time there were only 700 blacks living in Buffalo.[1]

Tens of thousands of slaves escaped to Canada. The First Report of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada estimated that by 1852, 30,000 “Negro refugees” had reached Canada.[13]

Years in Europe

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.[8][14] He was also traveling that year as a representative of the US at the International Peace Congress in Paris. Given passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in the US, which increased penalties and more severely enforced capture of fugitive slaves, he chose to stay in England until 1854. That year his freedom was purchased by British friends. As a highly visible public figure in the US, he was at risk for capture as a fugitive and re-enslavement. 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. He often showed a metal slave collar as demonstration of the institution’s evils.[15] 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.[16]

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.[5]

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.[17]

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. In his Letter XIV, Brown wrote about his meeting with the Christian philosopher Thomas Dick in 1851.[18]

Abolition orator and writer

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

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 Douglassslave narrative memoir. Brown critiques his master’s lack of Christian values and the customary brutal use of violence by owners 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 (mixed-race) daughters born to Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves. His novel is believed to be the first written by an African American.[19]

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, Sally Hemings. In 1826 Jefferson freed five mixed-race slaves in his will; some historians now believe that two brothers, Madison and Eston Hemings, were among his four surviving children from his long-term relationship with Sally Hemings.[20] However, some prominent historians strongly disagree.

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.”[21]

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).