At just after 8 p.m. on February 2, 1857, an air of expectancy gripped the crowd assembled in the town hall in the little village of Salem, Ohio. The audience leaned forward in their seats, eager to catch a glimpse of the middle-aged black man who strode confidently onto the stage. William Wells Brown, the object of their curiosity, cleared his throat and began to recite from Experience, or How to Give a Northern Man a Backbone, the first play authored by an African American.
For almost a year, Brown had traveled about the Northeast reading his drama, which dealt with the evils of slavery and urged the abolitionists in attendance to do something about the plight of blacks held in bondage. No copies of this 1856 play have survived, but fortunately, his second such work, The Escape, or A Leap For Freedom, fared better following its 1858 publication.
These two plays–the only ones known to have been written by Brown– represented only a tiny portion of his literary achievements. Virtually illiterate in his youth, Brown went on to become a historian, an essayist, a journalist, and a lecturer, as well as America’s first black novelist, playwright, and travel-book author.
Born near Lexington, Kentucky, sometime between 1813 and 1815, William was the son of Elizabeth, a slave on a farm owned by Dr. John Young. His father was George Higgins, Young’s half-brother or cousin.
In 1816, Dr. Young moved to Missouri with his family and slaves, settling in Saint Charles County on the northern shore of the Missouri River. Four years later, Young went off to serve in the state’s first legislature, leaving his farm in the hands of overseer Grove Cook, a cruel man who made frequent use of the whip. In his autobiography, William described a beating that his mother received, remembering that ‘cold chills ran over me, and I wept aloud.’
While William was still a boy, the Young’s took an infant nephew into their home. Since his name too was William, they changed the young slave’s name to Sanford. The youth did not take losing his only possession–his name–lightly and endured several beatings for persisting in calling himself William.
Light skinned, William also found himself at the wrong end of the lash when people mistook him for a member of the Young family, a resemblance that was obviously beyond his control. This question of skin color caused William to suffer the scorn of some fellow slaves as well. As he later wrote, ‘the nearer a slave approaches an Anglo-Saxon in complexion the more he is abused by both owner and fellow-slaves. The owner flogs him to keep him ‘in his place,’ and the slaves hate him on account of his being whiter than themselves.’
When Dr. Young moved to St. Louis in 1827, he hired William out to work in a variety of jobs. In his first book, Narrative of William Wells Brown, A Fugitive Slave, William wrote of his treatment at the hands of a tavern keeper named Major Freeland, a drunkard who severely beat the then-teenager. After brief stints working on a steamboat and at the Missouri Hotel in the city, William was hired by Elijah P. Lovejoy, editor of the St. Louis Times. There for only a brief time, William was nonetheless able to acquire the rudiments of an education.
In 1832, William was put in the employ of James Walker, a slave trader, for one year and was forced to take part in the transportation of fellow slaves down river for auction. By the time William’s distasteful service to Walker had expired, Dr. Young found himself in financial difficulty. To ease his situation, he made plans to sell William, despite an earlier promise to Higgins that he never would sell his son. Regretful that such a move was necessary, Young gave William a week to find a new owner. Instead, William talked his mother into trying to flee to Canada. Against her better judgement, Elizabeth agreed.
Eleven days later the pair was captured in Illinois; Elizabeth was sold into the deep South and never saw her son again. William was sold for $500.00 to a St. Louis tailor, Samuel Willi, who hired him out as a servant on a steamboat. Less than a year later, Willi sold William to a merchant and riverboat owner, Enoch Price. When his new owner, acting as captain, took one of his boats to New Orleans and then to Cincinnati, in the free state of Ohio, he took William along.
On January 1, 1834, William carried a passenger’s trunk ashore in Cincinnati. Seizing this chance to escape, he kept on walking and quickly made his way out of the city. For six days, he wandered by himself during the night hours, ill-clothed for the winter weather and without food.
Nearly frozen and sick with a fever, he finally approached a man who ‘had on a broad-brimmed hat and a very long coat, and was obviously walking for exercise. As soon as I saw him, and observed his dress, I thought to myself, ‘You are the man that I have been looking for!’ Nor was I mistaken. He was the very man!’
Wells Brown, a Quaker, gave the youth shelter and food, and cared for him until he was well. On learning that William had no family name, he offered his own, and the runaway slave became William Wells Brown.
With a new name and a fresh start in a free state, the light-skinned William traveled to Cleveland, where he worked at odd jobs until navigation resumed on the Great Lakes in the spring. When shipping again opened up, William found employment as a steward on a Lake Erie steamer, the Detroit.
That same year, he met and married Elizabeth Schooner, whom he called Betsey. The couple’s first child died not long after birth, but they had two more daughters, Clarissa and Josephine.
During the nine years he plied the lakes, William taught himself to read and write, and helped other fugitives escape to freedom in Canada. By 1840, Brown and his family had moved to Buffalo, New York, and made their home a stop on the Underground Railway; 69 runaways made good their escape through Brown’s efforts during 1842 alone.
Soon after his arrival in Buffalo, Brown organized the Union Total Abstinence Society and began his association with the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society. He lectured for the abolitionist cause, using his speeches to attack America’s idea of democracy, which he felt only existed for whites, and the hypocrisy of using religion to ensure the docility of slaves.
Although a speech he delivered before the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1847 was his first published work, his first book was his’slave narrative,’ a popular genre of the period, which was released that same year. In the two years following its publication, the biography went through four editions. While this work did show the influence of previously published slave narratives, Brown’s was unique in its inclusion of cases other than his own to point up the overwhelming cruelty of slavery.
After seeing a copy of William’s slave narrative, Enoch Price, his former owner, wrote in 1848 offering William his freedom for $325.00. Brown refused, firm in his belief that freedom can not be bought or sold but is a divine and moral right. ‘God,’ he declared, ‘made me as free as he did Enoch Price,’ and therefore, not a penny would be paid for his freedom ‘with my consent.’
A year later, he published The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings, a compilation of 46 pieces to be sung to familiar melodies. He gave a series of anti-slavery presentations throughout New England, illustrating the evils of involuntary servitude by presenting two escaped slaves from Georgia, William and Ellen Craft. And, he traveled to France in August 1849 as the American Peace Society’s delegate to the International Peace Congress in Paris.
In 1850, the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law was strengthened, making it dangerous for Brown to return home. William, therfore, chose to remain abroad.With England as his base, he spent the next four years traveling throughout Great Britain and to Europe, giving lectures about the slavery question and completing three more books. The first–A Description of William Wells Brown’s Panoramic Views of the Scenes in the Life of an American Slave, from His Birth in Slavery to His Death or His Escape to His First Home of Freedom on British Soil–consisted of stories and a series of 24 sketches, which were drawn by artists at his direction.
Three Years in Europe: or, Places I have Seen and People I have Met, published in 1852, was a compilation of 23 letters Brown had written since his arrival there, comparing the freedom of life in Europe to the tyranny faced by blacks in America. The book was well received, one reviewer noting that Brown wrote ‘with ease and ability, and his intelligent observations upon the great question to which he has devoted, and is devoting, his life, will command influence and respect.’
Brown’s novel, Clotel: or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, was published in London in 1853. The book took its title from allegations that Thomas Jefferson had fathered several mixed-race children, whom he then abandoned to slavery. Published about a year after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, however, Brown’s work failed to create much of a stir or garner critical acclaim.
While abroad, Brown also used his time to become versed in the practice of medicine. In a day when formal training still was not required for doctors, he attended lectures and conducted private study, gradually obtaining sufficient knowledge to become a medical practitioner. Instead of pursuing that profession, however, he continued to devote himself to the anti-slavery cause.
In 1854, Brown finally agreed to purchase his freedom so that he might return to the United States and fight more effectively for the abolition of the ‘most cruel system of oppression that ever blackened the character or hardened the heart of man.’
Soon after he arrived in America, Brown published The American Fugitive in Europe, an enlarged version of his Three Years in Europe. This new edition was the first book written by Brown to be reviewed by a major American newspaper. The New York Daily Tribune declared that the work was a ‘lively and entertaining record of foreign travel’ and, due to its origins, a worthy ‘novelty in literature.’
During the Civil War, Brown joined fellow abolitionists Frederick Douglass and T. Morris Chester in recruiting in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey for the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The war years also saw publication of Brown’s first historical work, The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. An anthology of biographical sketches of blacks with significant accomplishments to their credit, this work went through ten editions in just three years.
Two years after the war, Brown brought out The Negro in the American Rebellion, His Heroism and His Fidelity. And in 1874, he published his most complete and important historical undertaking, The Rising Son; or, The Antecedents and Advancements of the Colored Race, which traced the roots of America’s blacks from Africa. As he had in his previous histories, Brown strongly refuted the era’s belief in the inferiority of the black race.
William Wells Brown died in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in 1884. Despite his literary achievements and his many contributions in the struggle for freedom and equality, he was buried in an unmarked grave in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, cemetery.
He was eulogized in the Boston newspapers as ‘one of the most intelligent, earnest and active members of the little band of oldtime abolitionists’ and as a ‘prolific writer, commanding a clear intellect and facile pen . . . .’ Brown, who spent his last years fighting for improved education for black children, did his utmost throughout his life to combat racial prejudice and its resulting indignities, consistently emphasizing the need for cooperation among people of all races.
This article was written by Marsh Cassady and originally published in American History Magazine in December 1999. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!