Born: About 1814
Montgomery County, Kentucky
Died: November 6, 1884
William Wells Brown escaped slavery and eventually became an internationally known journalist, historian, lecturer and the first African American novelist and playwright published in the United States.
His first piece of writing, a “slave narrative” published by abolitionists in 1847, began with this sentence: “I was born in Lexington, Kentucky.” But biographer Ezra Greenspan discovered nearly two centuries later that Wells was actually born on a Montgomery County farm near Mt. Sterling. His mother, Elizabeth, was a slave. His father was James W. Higgins, her owner’s cousin. Brown was brought at age 3 to Marthasville, Missouri, in Warren County.
At age 19, Brown escaped to free territory in Ohio and made a concerted effort to educate himself. He became a conductor on the Underground Railroad and worked on a Lake Erie steamer ferrying slaves to freedom in Canada. In 1843, Brown became a lecturing agent for the New York Anti-Slavery Society and worked closely with William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips.
He moved to England and became a celebrity as an anti-slavery lecturer, then returned to the United States in 1854 as a man of letters. Brown became “free” upon his return because supporters in England, the Richardson family, purchased his freedom, as they also had for Frederick Douglass. Brown settled in Boston, Massachusetts.
Brown published a travelogue, Three Years in Europe (1852). It was followed by the sensational Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter (1853), the first novel by an African American to be published in the United States. The title character is the daughter of a slave and President Thomas Jefferson. The book’s inspiration was the rumors that had long swirled about Jefferson’s now-proven relationship with Sally Hemings, a mixed-race slave (and half-sister of his deceased wife) who bore several of his children.
Brown published a groundbreaking history of African Americans, The Black Man (1863) and a history of African-American involvement in the Civil War, The Negro in the American Rebellion (1867). His final book was My Southern Home (1880), which Greenspan called a “savagely perceptive, rollicking account of the South looking both backward and forward from a Jim Crow-era vantage point.”
As he had been with the abolition movement, Brown became a popular lecturer with the anti-alcohol Temperance movement later in life. After studying homeopathic medicine, he opened a medical practice in Boston’s South End.
During his first year of freedom, in 1834, Brown married Elizabeth Schooner. They had two daughters who survived to adulthood, Clarissa and Josephine. Brown and his wife separated in 1847. Brown’s second wife was Anna Elizabeth Gray.
Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself, Boston: The Anti-slavery office, 1847.
The Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings. Boston: Bela Marsh, 1848.
Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself, London: C. Gilpin, 1849.
Three Years in Europe: Or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met. London: Charles Gilpin, 1852.
Clotel; or the President’s Daughter London, UK: Partridge & Oakley, 1853.
The American Fugitive in Europe. Sketches of Places and People Abroad. Boston: John P. Jewett, 1855.
The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements. New York: Thomas Hamilton; Boston: R.F. Wallcut, 1863.
The Negro in the American Rebellion; His Heroism and His Fidelity. Boston: Lee & Shepard, 1867.
The Rising Son, or The Antecedents and Advancements of the Colored Race. Boston: A. G. Brown & Co., 1873.
My Southern Home: or, The South and Its People, Boston: A. G. Brown & Co., Publishers, 1880.