Sunday, February 23, 2014

BHM2014 - William Wells Brown

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, Elizabeth Schooner.   They had three daughters, one of whom died shortly after birth.  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. It was in Buffalo that he began his career in the abolitionist movement by regularly attending meetings of the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society, by boarding antislavery lecturers at his home, speaking at local abolitionist gatherings, and by traveling to Cuba and Haiti to investigate emigration possibilities.  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.  Brown's historical writings include The Black Man, The Negro in the American Rebellion, and The Rising Son.

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.  Clotel tells the story of daughters and granddaughters of President Thomas Jefferson. In 1858 his play The Escape became the first play ever to be published by an African American. He completed his last book, My Southern Home; or the South and Its people, in 1880.

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.  


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