His life was as compelling as any character her ever created—up from illiterate slavery to international celebrity as a pioneering Black author and leading abolitionist. In his day William Wells Brown was nearly as famed as Fredrick Douglass but today is barely a footnote in American literary and social justice history. This post aims help fix that.
Brown was born in 1814 or ’15 near Lexington, Kentucky in the racially complex circumstances common to slavery. His mother Elizabeth had both African and Native American ancestry and she was held in bondage by Dr. John Young. She was repeatedly sexually exploited and gave birth to seven children each with different fathers. His father was Dr. Young’s cousin George W. Higgins, a neighboring planter and a Mayflower descendent. Higgins acknowledged the child and showed some care for him and his mother, at least to the extent of getting Young to promise not to sell either of them.
But Young, perhaps out of jealously, did sell both before the boy was 10 years old. Both would be on the block again but managed to stay together. They were held mostly in and around St. Louis where the boy was hired out as a deck hand on Mississippi steam boats through most of his teens. He escaped the drudgery of field labor and got to see more of the world than most slaves.
In 1833 mother and son managed to escape together across the river into Illinois but they were soon recaptured and hauled back to St. Louis. He was sold for the final time to Captain Enoch Price and was soon back on the river on his master’s the paddle wheeler. A year later he jumped ship at Cincinnati on the Ohio River and was aided in his escape by a largely Quaker abolitionist network. In gratitude he adopted the name of one of his chief benefactors, William Wells and the last name Brown.
Despite the anguish of being now separated from his mother, Brown set about making a new life. He began with a program of self-improvement, quickly teaching himself to read and devouring newspapers, magazines, religious tracks, and any books he could find. He also met and married Elizabeth Schooner and began a family that included two daughters who would survive into adulthood, Clarissa and Josephine.
Brown's Abolitionist connections led to a brief stint in Elijah P. Lovejoy's printing shop.
By 1836 Brown was literate enough and, more significantly, well enough connected in Abolitionist circles to go to work for Elijah P. Lovejoy in his Alton, Illinois printing shop where the noted anti-slavery zealot published the Alton Observer. On November 7, 1837 a pro-slavery mob attacked a warehouse where Lovejoy was hiding a new printing press after two others had been smashed and thrown into the river. The warehouse was set on fire and Lovejoy was murdered by the mob making him a significant early abolitionist martyr.
Brown left Lovejoy’s employment before the attack after he believed his identity had been discovered by the slave catchers active in the area. He and his family fled north settling in Buffalo, New York.
Buffalo offered him both economic opportunities as a steamboat man on Lake Erie out of the busy port city. It was also a center of the Up State New York vigorous abolitionist movement and a key link in the Underground Railway. Between 1837 and 1849 Brown used the boats on which he worked, usually with the support of the owners or captains, to help hundreds of fugitive slaves escaped to Canada either by taking them directly to Canadian ports or to Detroit, Michigan from where they could easily cross the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario and safety.
In his memoirs Brown said that from May to December 1842 alone, he had helped 69 fugitives reach Canada. The effectiveness of the Buffalo connection and the Underground Railway as a whole was underscored by a report published by the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada that more than 30,000 fugitives had reached safety there by 1852.
Brown was also taking an increasingly public role in the Abolitionist movement and as a pillar of the Black community in Buffalo, and then estimated to number about 800. He joined and was active in both Negro and integrated Anti-Slavery Societies and became active in the Negro Convention Movement which helped build the first national network of Black organizations of all types. He also founded a Negro Temperance Society based in Buffalo that reported a membership of more than 500. That also was a second bridge to white activists as Abolitionism and Temperance were the mother issues to generations of social reformers of all stripes.
He became an increasingly noted orator and lecturer. His lectures were unique in that he incorporated music into the programs often singing to the accompaniment of a guitar or lap organ. The songs were mostly adapted hymns and Abolitionist anthems by White composers and writers but included some with lyrics written by Backs, most likely including himself.
Brown became a staunch supporter and ally of William Lloyd Garrison and the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS) and declined to be involved with the Liberty Party formed in 1840 by abolitionists willing to work within electoral politics to support their goals. Garrison and Brown opposed voting and working within the system. The regarded the Constitution as a corrupt document enshrining slavery and democracy as a sham. The short lived Liberty Party was a forerunner to the anti-slavery but not abolitionist Free Soil Party in 1848 and Republican Party in the 1850s.
The title page of Brown's autobiography.
In 1847 Brown published his first book, The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself which became a Northern best seller and was second only to Frederick Douglass’s 1845 autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
Brown was now nationally in the top ranks of Black Abolitionists. But he was also now publicly exposed as a fugitive himself and once again in danger of being pursued by slave catchers.
During these busy years he became estranged from his wife. His two young daughters remained with him.
Little wonder that in 1849 Brown leapt at the chance to be a delegate to the International Peace Congress in Paris. He brought his young daughters with him on his Trans-Atlantic journey in hopes of securing them the formal education that he had been denied. At the famous conference where its President Victor Hugo introduced the concept of a United States of Europe, Brown was invited to give a featured address on the anti-slavery movement. During the conference he also had a noted confrontation with pro-slavery American delegates who tried to prevent both his being seated and his speaking role.
After the Congress, Brown based himself in Britain where he launched extensive speaking tours to gain support for the American Abolitionist movement. When Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 making it even more dangerous for him to return to America, Brown decided to remain in exile. He was welcomed by the well-established British Anti-Slavery Societies which sponsored his lectures.
Typical of his reception was this report in the Scotch Independent:
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.
A Broadside advertising one of Brown's British speaking engagements.
While in England Brown took advantage of the well-stocked libraries of some of his Anti-Slavery Society sponsors as well as the ever reliable British Museum to read as widely as possible to make up for he considered the deficiencies of his education. He also traveled widely across Europe both as a speaker and as a voraciously curious tourist taking time to absorb as much of the culture and history of each spot he visited was possible.
The result was his popular travelogue Three Years in Europe: or Places I Have Seen And People I Have Met published by the press of radical social reformer Charles Gilpin in 1852. That was two years after Gilpin published a successful English edition of Brown’s slavery memoirs. The book was the first volume of travel writing—an exceedingly popular 19th Century genre—ever published by a Black writer. As a result he was now a genuine international literary figure. And he had a driving ambition to expand on that in entirely new directions.
Bursting with inspiration and energy he wrote furiously. The result was a novel, Clotel, or, The President's Daughter: a Narrative of Slave Life in the United States. It was a breathtakingly daring effort about two daughter sired by Thomas Jefferson on one of his slaves. It was based rumors circulated since the post-Revolutionary War era and well-founded suspicions as well as his own mother’s experience of sexual exploitation in bondage and the dark secret of the wide-spread miscegenation in plantation life. Explosive stuff.
Thomas Jefferson's mullato daughter Clotel throws herself to her death in the Potomac to foil slave catchers in the climax of Brown's novel.
When Brown was writing the details of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings, the slave who was his dead wife’s half-sister were a closely guarded secret and certainly unknown to Brown except perhaps for reference to a Dusky Sally in John Quincy Adams’s anonymous ballad attacking Jefferson during the 1800 Presidential contest against his father. But Brown’s fiction was not far off the mark. We now know as a genetically proven fact that two of Hemming’s sons were fathered by Jefferson and later freed by him.
The topic was too hot for his previous publisher Gilpin to handle, but Partridge & Oakey issued it in London in 1854. No American publisher dared print it until the Civil War. The book is often considered the first novel by an African-American but it loses the title of first Black novel published in the U.S. to Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig issued in 1859 because of the delay.
In 1854 the Quaker abolitionist Richardson family of Newcastle Upon Tyne in Northern England purchased Brown’s freedom from his legal master making it safe for him and his family to return to the United States. The family had previously done the same for Frederick Douglas.
Brown and his daughters set sail for America. But much had changed while they were gone. On a personal level Brown’s estranged wife and the girls’ mother had died in 1850 completely severing that tenuous tie to the past. They really had no home to return to—Buffalo had been a useful base but there were no deep ties there.
The political and social climate had changed as well. The Compromise of 1850 over the organization of Territories wrung from Mexico and the admittance of new states to the Union had satisfied no one and sectional differences grew sharper year by year fueled by the doctrine of Popular Sovereignty that would lead to a bloody virtual civil war in Kansas between pro and anti-slavery settlers. The old Whig Party, home to many Northern slavery opponents but also to anti-Jacksonian Southern aristocrats and pro-slavery zealots had fallen apart and ceased to exist due to it irreconcilable contradictions. A moderate anti-slavery expansion party, the Free Soilers had risen and almost immediately began its own steep decline. Abolitionists were sharply divided among themselves over participating in electoral politics or a militant complete rejection of the United States consecrated in and founded upon slavery. New social movements, including women’s equality and nascent labor movements raised questions of possible cooperation—and of possible conflict.
Brown decided to move to Boston, which served his ambitions well. The Hub of the Universe was still the undisputed literary, cultural, and philosophic center of America. It was also the center of militant abolitionism and an active hot bed of resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, which had been strengthened under the terms of the Compromise of 1850. Brown soon returned to the lecture platform and the circuit of appearances before local Anti-slavery societies and conventions. He had programs tailored to both white and Black audiences. For white audiences like the Female Anti-Slavery Society in Salem, Massachusetts he emphasized the unvarnished brutality of day today existence under slavery.
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.
In front of Black audience he upheld dignity and emphasized historical accomplishments by noted Blacks. He urged self-improvement, dignity, and temperance. And while he appreciated White support, he told his Black audiences not to rely on it. He urged community self-organization and not letting Whites speak for them which inevitably meant setting goals and limitations that protected White property and privilege at the expense of Blacks. It was a radical and thoroughly modern sounding program.
As the tensions of the 1850 grew sharper, Brown despaired of the possibility of Blacks being able to make a safe and free home in a county awash in racism and in terror of Black retaliation for generations of suffering. He began to promote a scheme for Blacks to re-settle in Haiti, an established Black Republic that had won Independence from France in a bloody revolution and had almost completely wiped out or driven out the old White plantation aristocracy, merchants, traders, and government functionaries. This effort differed from the early earlier scheme promoted by the American Colonization Society in the 1830’s which was led by Whites eager to rid America of Freed Blacks. Colonists had been recruited and had founded a society modeled on American Democracy but which itself displaced and oppressed a larger native population that never accepted or welcomed them.
It is unclear if Brown himself was ready to go to Haiti or to take a leadership role in colony there that was given at best an uneasy welcome by the Haitian government. Only a few American Blacks ever made it to the nation before the Civil War dramatically changed the landscape of possibilities.
After John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid which was financed by some of William Brown’s closest white allies in Boston, including the Rev. Theodore Parker, he had a crisis of conscience questioning the pacifism and commitment to non-violence that he long ago absorbed from his Quaker friends and supporters. As war loomed, he reluctantly concluded that the nation could only be purged and redeemed by violence.
Frederick Douglass, Brown's contemporary and rival.
Brown also continued his Temperance work and was increasingly also in vocal support of the movement for Women’s Equality that had emerged after the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. That put him on similar ground to Frederick Douglass, who had attended the Convention and remained a vocal ally the movement. The two men had met each other during the Black Convention Movement and their paths periodically crossed. But they were never personally close and did not collaborate. Perhaps there was a touch of wary mutual jealousy as the two often seemed to be in an undeclared competition. Sometimes the two feuded publicly over differences.
Meanwhile, Brown had not neglected his literary ambitions. In 1855 he published The American Fugitive in Europe. Sketches of Places and People Abroad, a revised and expanded edition of his European travel memoir including several of the important speeches he had delivered and a short auto-biographical sketch.
He also completed two plays. Experience; or, How to Give a Northern Man a Backbone completed in 1856 was never published or produced and is now lost. But its tantalizing title hints at what a bold and in-your-face script it must have been. Two years later he finished The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom, an autobiographical piece about his flight to freedom. It was not produced on stage in his life time but was published in 1858 making it the first published play by an African-American author. Brown would often read from the script, acting out all of the characters, in lieu of a traditional lecture. The play was finally brought to the boards more than a century later in a staging at Emerson College in Boston in 1971.
Also in 1856 Brown’s now grown younger daughter Josephine Brown published Biography of an American Bondman, an updated account of his life, drawing heavily on material from her father's 1847 autobiography. She added details about abuses he suffered as a slave, as well as new material about his years in Europe. Josephine would have her own pioneering literary career and would continue to work collaboratively with her father on his later efforts.
On the personal front, on April 12, 1860, the 44-year-old Brown married again, to 25-year-old Anna Elizabeth Gray in Boston. It was exactly one year before the artillery attack on Ft. Sumter in the Charleston, South Carolina harbor marked the beginning of the Civil War. The marriage would prove happy and productive despite the gathering war clouds and produce three more children, two more daughters and a son, William Wells Brown, Jr.
William Wells Brown about the time of the Civil War.
With the coming of War Brown supported efforts to arm Black troops, both Freemen in the North and eventually the contraband escaped slaves who flocked across Union lines. After the Emancipation Proclamation in January of 1863 President Abraham Lincoln officially authorized the raising of Colored Regiments as a critical war measure. Brown, too old to fight himself, helped recruit Black troops. He introduced his Boston abolitionist ally Francis George Shaw who was financing the cost of raising the 54th Massachusetts Infantry to Robert John Simmons, Bermudan of “more than ordinary abilities who had learned the science of war in the British Army.” Simmons became a First Sargent in the Regiment which was commanded by Francis’ Shaw’s 24-year old son, Col. Robert Gould Shaw. Simmons did indeed turn out to be a fine soldier and natural leader. He died of his wounds after the legendary assault Fort Wagner at Charleston on July 18, 1863. Col. Shaw and much of the Regiment were killed on the gallant but fruitless attack on the heavily defended bastion surrounded by dunes and earthworks.
Brown was increasingly interested in history and on what we might call today the sociology of the Southern planter society that supported slavery and of the lost achievements of Blacks. With the assistance of his daughter Brown wrote and published The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements in 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, or The Antecedents and Achievements of the Colored Race, 1873; and another memoir, My Southern Home in 1880 which was his last work.
With his lecture platform income disrupted by the War, the ever energetic Brown reinvented himself once again. He studied homeopathic medicine and opened his own practice in Boston’s working class South End. For several years he commuted there daily from the home he shared with his wife in Cambridge where he enjoyed access to the library and research facilities at Harvard.
Finally slowing down, Brown retired to Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1882 and died on November 6, 1884, at about age 70.
The Historic maker honoring Brown near the site of his Buffalo, New York home.
Brown’s memory has long been overshadowed by his old rival Frederick Douglass. His memory was somewhat boosted by the Black History movement in American Universities in the 1970’s where he was seen as both a literary pioneer and an early exponent of some of the themes that would be embodied in the Black Power Movement. Here and there are markers, or honors in some of the places he lived. In Kentucky where he was elected to the state’s Writers’ Hall of Fame and where an elementary school has been named for him. In Buffalo a historic marker has been placed near the site of his home and his portrait is included in the outdoor Freedom Wall painted by artist Edreys Wajed along with 27 other abolition and civil rights legends commissioned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and dedicated in 2017.
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