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William Wells Brown was an African American antislavery
lecturer, groundbreaking novelist
. 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, Ohio
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. They had two daughters. 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
By 1843 Brown was lecturing regularly on his experiences in slavery for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society. 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. He also wrote two additional books. 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. In 1858 his play The Escape
became the first play ever to be published by an African American.
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.
William E. Farrison, William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969); Paul Jefferson, The Travels of William Wells Brown (New York: Markus Wiener, 1991); Herb Boyd, Autobiography of a People: Three Centuries of African American History Told by Those Who Lived It (New York: Doubleday, 2000).
University of Washington