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William Wells Brown

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

William Wells Brown
William Wells Brown.jpg
Born1814 or March 15, 1815
Died(1884-11-06)November 6, 1884
Occupationabolitionist, writer, historian.
Spouse(s)(1) Elizabeth "Betsey" Schooner, 1835; (2) Annie Elizabeth Gray, 1860
ChildrenClarissa Brown, Josephine Brown, Henrietta Helen Brown, William Wells Brown, Jr., Clotelle Brown
RelativesJoe Brown (brother)

William Wells Brown (c. 1814 – November 6, 1884) was a prominent African-American abolitionist lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian in the United States. Born into slavery in Montgomery County, Kentucky, near the town of Mount Sterling, Brown escaped to Ohio in 1834 at the age of 20. He settled in Boston, Massachusetts, where he worked for abolitionist causes and became a prolific writer. While working for abolition, Brown also supported causes including: temperance, women's suffrage, pacifism, prison reform, and an anti-tobacco movement.[1] His novel Clotel (1853), considered the first novel written by an African American, was published in London, England, where he resided at the time; it was later published in the United States.

Brown was a pioneer in several different literary genres, including travel writing, fiction, and drama. In 1858 he became the first published African-American playwright, and often read from this work on the lecture circuit. Following the Civil War, in 1867 he published what is considered the first history of African Americans in the Revolutionary War. He was among the first writers inducted to the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, established in 2013.[2] A public school was named for him in Lexington, Kentucky.

Brown was lecturing in England when the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law was passed in the US; as its provisions increased the risk of capture and re-enslavement, he stayed overseas for several years. He traveled throughout Europe. After his freedom was purchased in 1854 by a British couple, he and his two daughters returned to the US, where he rejoined the abolitionist lecture circuit in the North. A contemporary of Frederick Douglass, Brown was overshadowed by the charismatic orator and the two feuded publicly.[3]

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  • ✪ William Wells Brown: An African-American Life
  • ✪ Clotel, or, The President's Daughter (FULL Audiobook)
  • ✪ William Wells Brown - Mac and PC.mp4
  • ✪ Le Mélange of Francophone Culture in William Wells Brown's Clotel
  • ✪ Clotel, or, The President's Daughter Full Audiobook by William Wells BROWN


>> From the Library of Congress in Washington DC. >> Good afternoon and welcome to the Library of Congress. I'm John Cole. I'm the director of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, which is the Library's reading and literacy promotion arm. And I'm happy to welcome you to one of our noontime talks about new books that have special relevance to the Library of Congress. And this is how we kind of define the books and beyond noontime series. The Center for the book itself promotes books and reading, not only here in these talks, but also through the National Book Festival. How many people here were at last weekend's, was it two weekends ago? The national was two weekends ago, National Book Festival, which this year moved to the convention center for the first time with pretty good results, and so we are evaluating that, and the Book Festival itself is certainly a going concern. And I'm hoping that we can remain in the convention centers, as a matter-of-fact. We also have state centers for the books in all states, which are hosted by different kinds of institutions. But wherever they are, and however they're hosted their job is to stimulate public interest in books and reading and literacy in libraries in their states. All of our Books and Beyond talks here at the Library of Congress are filmed for the Library's website and so I'm asking you to please turn off all things electronic, and we will have a format that includes a chance for questions and answers and some discussion with our author. And so please be aware of that, that if you involve yourself in that, you have a chance of also being part of our website broadcast. We will also have a book signing. I'm delighted that this beautiful book has arrived just in time. Our speaker last night was at Politics and Prose, as some of you know, and he tells me the books had just arrived the day before Politics and Prose. So we are in luck, and the book will be -- it has a price of $35 and we're selling it at the Library of Congress price today of $30. So I hope you take advantage of that, and the timing is such that we will need to move to the book signing no later than 1:00 :00 depending on how the questions and answers go. I am very pleased to be able to introduce an old friend, Ezra Greenspan. Ezra is, and I'm going to read this out. Now the Edmund J. And Louise W. Con Professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He holds a PhD from Brown University, and when we first met, Ezra was teaching at the University of South Carolina. And the vehicle through which we've known each other is the organization called SHARP, that many of you hope know about or hope you are members. SHARP stands for the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing. And Ezra came to the two SHARP meetings that the Center for the Book has hosted at the Library of Congress. The first one was the second year of SHARP, and I can't come up with the date for certain, but I know the last one was three years ago, and here in Washington when we collaborated with a number of other organizations, and had more than 250 scholars who are interested in the history of books, libraries, and the history of reading. Ezra has been the editor of book history, which I meant to bring an example of it, which he has co-edited for many years with Jonathan Rose, who is another scholar who was in on the -- well actually, Jonathan I think we call the founder of SHARP. And it's a remarkable international organization that really has come a long ways in promoting the history of books and the history of print culture. And Ezra will be giving another talk this afternoon to our Mid Atlantic group that is in charge of the culture, or not in charge of, but studies book culture. And that talk will a little bit more on the archival side of things will be at 4:00 o'clock held in the Clugey Center. Ezra is among other things, a Whitman scholar, who in 1990 published Walt Whitman and the American Reader. And in the year 2000, he published a biography of the publisher George Palmer Putnam, which was always of interest to me, because Herbert Putnam, who was the Library of Congress from 1899 until 1939 was George Palmer Putnam's sons. One of his sons, right, Ezra? But Ezra is onto a very exciting topic that he's going to share with us today. He's done some pioneering research on the important and versatile 19th century author, writer, William Wells Brown, and it's my pleasure now to present to you Ezra Greenspan. Ezra. [inaudible] [ Applause ] >> [Inaudible] Thank you, John. It's a delight to be back at the Library of Congress. Those two books that John mentioned, the books on Whitman and GP Putnam were Library of Congress books. They could not of been done had this spectacular collections of this library not been available. I'm not going to say this in a sour way. Don't misunderstand me, but one can't write a biography by contrast of William Wells Brown by relying on the Library of Congress. We have a number of his books here, but Brown, like most African-American figures, pre-20th century is elusive, hard-to-find, difficult to track down, and in part the lack of a central archive was really the central problem. There are other problems as well, but that was a crucial one. And that's just by way of preface. If I have time I'm going to circle back to Washington, and give you William Wells Brown's view of Washington from the 1850s before the Civil War. But I'm very happy to be here. The center of the book is a wonderful institution. I really feel at home coming back here. I'm going to read a fairly formally for I think about 10 minutes and then more loosely get to a slide presentation, which I think is the more interesting part. But there is a little bit of work that needs to be done, and I can do it more effectively if I read from script. When we talk about the lives of great American writers, Franklin, master of the press, offspring of the platonic conception of himself, father of the city that he adopted before it adopted him, his patron saint. Whitman, son of a broken family, six grade education. Master of self-promotion, incarnation of the body electric. Melville another six grade dropout, wandering sailor, no-show at Harvard or Yale College, but graduate of the school of Wales. Dickinson, daughter of difference who rose to no man's requirements, mistress of self-reliance. The only kangaroo among the beauty. Fluoro bachelor of nature, enemy of conformity, lover of himself. Twain riverboat pilot, Confederate Yankee, self educated with a major in humor, and a minor in contrariness. We think of lives that were unprecedented, unpredictable, unscripted, yet outlandish as these lives are, none can quite compare with the life of William Wells Brown for sheer implausibility. Brown was the master of the implausible. For the full account I invite you to read the 600 page biography, but for today's purpose you need only an introductory sketch. William as he was known in his earliest years. We don't even know his familiar name, Bill, Billy, Will, Willie, we don't know was born in 1814. This is his Bicentennial, but raised on the Missouri frontier on a farm in an area associated with Daniel Boone. He was really raised in Boone country. He spent his teens rented out as a contract laborer in St. Louis, working chiefly, and most memorably on the first generation of Mississippi and Missouri River steamboats, miserably unhappy, especially as his family members were sold off one by one. Brown staged three escapes from his masters during his St. Louis years. On the third attempt initiated as he disembarked his master steamboat at the public landing in Cincinnati on New Year's Day 1834, he finally gained his freedom and ran northeastward across Ohio towards Lake Erie. Illiterate, in all likelihood, certainly functionally illiterate and innumerate at the time of his escape, he quickly made himself over into a new man after settling in Cleveland and later Buffalo where he used his unschooled hard-earned literacy to make himself over the next five decades, the most prolific, pioneering and accomplished African-American writer and multimedia figure of the 19th century. His many books include the first known African-American novel, published play, European travel book, history of black military service in the Civil War, and antislavery songbook. His futurative slave narrative is one of the seminal works in the genre. The antislavery moving panorama he took on tour across the British Isles in the early 1850's, was a major achievement in the history of African-American visual arts. And is three histories of the African-American experience earn him the position of the leading historian in the field during his lifetime. Although, we may today see him as the first African-American literary professional, he actually led a high profile multidimensional professional life as a public speaker, antislavery and civil rights activist, temperance reformer, and medical doctor. That's a bare-bones sketch of Brown's life. The plan of this talk, however, is to focus not on the life, but on the reconstruction of the life as a biographical project. To do that I want to take you behind the scenes on a biographical journey. Writing biographies is always a journey. Sometimes it's a multiple stage journey, and this one occurred through selected archives. For my purposes in search of the major writer and social activist who disappeared largely from public view for a century after his death in 1884. So this project was, at least in part, a project of recovery, specifically about Brown it his larger dimensions, because I tried to write Brown into the larger American context. His life demands that. It's too big and to [inaudible] and important not to be treated that way. And so it was a recovery project on a fairly large scale, on not to say that there hasn't been a great deal of work done on many of the topics that I work on, but to bring Brown to the center to my mind was an absolutely crucial part of the project. The fundamental research question concerning William Wells Brown is how does one access his life? How do you get at him? Even to recent literary and cultural historians, Brown is proven one of the most elusive figures in the entire field of American literature. As two of the leading 21st-century scholars of African-American literature, and the [inaudible] and John Ernest have posed the question, where in the world is William Wells Brown? There's no easy answer, because there's no central archive there's virtually never is for members of any pre-20th century minority groups. The standard sources biographers work with, personal libraries, manuscripts, letters, albums, scrapbooks, memorabilia almost never exist. Not even for Brown, author of numerous books that were widely reviewed, frequently reprinted, and his name was frequently in the news. As a younger man, five years less senior than I am today, I initially had high hopes of finding ample new documentation. I was young and naïve. After five years of diligent work I've not found a single family letter written to or by Brown or with one exception to or by any other member of his family. And actually they're three different families that Brown had over the course of his lifetime. That's part of the personal story, which I'm not going to be talking about today. I don't even have a single specimen of the handwriting of his second wife, and I seen only one useful specimen of his literary manuscript, and that a couple of cheap sheets of paper that came to light two years ago by serendipity. But for all the difficulties, there was a way to locate William Wells Brown and his world, or way that I thought of it, William Wells Brown in his world. I thought it has to come together. And I want to retrace with you some of the steps my wife, Ricky, who was a central part of this entire project, and I made in pursuing his legacy over the course of five years and trips covering thousands of miles across the US, Canada, the British Isles, and Ireland. Our journey began in June 2009 when we packed up our home in Dallas, loaded up our car, and set out on a 14 month research trip with home base located at the American Antiquarian Society in Wooster, Massachusetts. We took the long route getting there. Following the trail that tracked along the northern arc of Brown's life, which for us included visits to archives in Missouri, Michigan, Ontario, all across New York State, and a long trek across England before we settled into our sabbatical home in Wooster. Our first stop was Missouri, where Brown spent nearly all of his boyhood in adolescence. What we were looking for, I realized only later was our trailhead. The point of entry along the trail I could not at the time identify. I couldn't even see my way, I couldn't find that the main trail through the narrative. It was something that had to be discovered as we pushed forward, and this I think is not uncommon for difficult biographical projects. Driving from Texas northeastward and dodging a tornado as we entered the show me state. We made our first stop in Columbia, the historical Society of Missouri, but made little headway. That is until I happen to notice hanging on one of the libraries walls a decades-old Missouri state highway map. In examining it closely, I noticed that the town of Marthasville, a place that resonated in my memory was located more or less on the way to St. Louis, our main destination in the state. So after a couple of relatively fruitless days of research at the Historical Society heading eastward toward St. Louis, we cut off the interstate, drove down a country highway, and wound up at the following spot, totally unaware that we had arrived at the trailhead of this biographical journey. Notice the date. The date is important. Marthasville 1817. We parked, I think you can actually see behind the signage there's a little parking lot. And I can't make out whether that's our car. It may be. We had no idea where we were, except that we were on the edge of the town of Martinsville, basically a farming community of about a 1,000 people today. And as we walked from the car we saw historical signage around this municipal park everywhere. And that's really the first part of the story, and I'll get to it in just a moment. But let me just mention this is the Katy Trail, which is part of the -- for a Dallas site this should've registered as an omen. The Katy Trail is the old Missouri Kansas Texas railway right-of-way. And on the other end it passes within about a mile of my office at SMU. The railroad doesn't exist anymore. This is now a public trail, lots of walkers, runners, bicycle, bicyclists. And I will say on the near side toward me about half a mile from this spot is the graveyard in which Daniel Boone was originally buried. He's since been reclaimed, [inaudible] and reputation by the state of Kentucky. Now, take a look at some of the signage. First of all, there's a little bit of the narrative of this area, but I want you to notice is behind me there is a restored cabin, which you're going to see more closely in a second. The path is actually a paved road by it has additional historical signage. And that signage, it turned out, became a crucial part of the entire biography. All of this completely by surprise. That's the restoration, [inaudible] with the plaque. What it makes clear is that this was a reconstructed cottage dating back to 1804. It was put up by the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Committee of the local area commemorating the fact that Lewis and Clark on their voyage of expedition westward, began in effect their voyage after leaving St. Louis. They came to this particular town before it really it entered its American phase. And here is one of the historical signs right by the cottage and it gives the history of this area going back to the French period. Remember it enters the US as part of the Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Previous to that, it was French-speaking. The name of it was La Charrette. By the time Lewis and Clark got there it was Charrette Village, and the sign gives the early history. So light bulb number one went off in my head. This is Lewis and Clark territory. This is a story about the westward frontier, about manifest destiny in the next generation. But another interesting piece on the signage at the bottom is the fact that this was also Boone country, that Rebecca Boone died at the home of her daughter, Jemima Calloway. Jemima Calloway was married to a man named Flanders Calloway. That's of minor importance. On the backside of the same sign, we have the American version. The town now called Marthasville, and the explanation that it was settled by a man by the name of Dr. John Young. Dr. John Young was the master and owner of the young William Wells Brown. So this is not just Lewis and Clark country, and Daniel Boone country. This is William Wells Brown country. And as you read the history starting with Young's purchase of the land it was a very big purchase. On the death of Daniel Boone at the home of his brother-in-law, his son, and sister-in-law, Young's sale of the land in 1826 on what you'll notice is absent is any mention of the name William Wells Brown. This was the situation as we saw it in the summer of 2009. So three major pieces of historical information. Lewis and Clark and the narrative of American progress, Daniel Boone, the great figure of the American frontier. And it's still to this day Boone country. And third, Dr. Young's presence and William Wells Brown's absence. And I realized this has to be the trailhead, and this is a major part of my story. It's a biography of a young African-American who grew up on the American frontier, who would spend his early years as an adolescent on the first generation of American steamboats. This was somebody with really an extraordinary background. I don't know if you can read it all the way in the back, but here's another really interesting little piece of information. The red arrow is pointing to the information. It says "Charrette Village adjoining the land of Flanders Calloway and James Bryant." I think Bryant is a misprint for Brian who was the son-in-law of Daniel Boone. But more to the point, Flanders Calloway was Boone's son-in-law, and if Rebecca Boone died in the cabin of Flanders Calloway, and another piece of information made it clear that Boone lived for part of his last six years, 1814 to 1820, in Flanders Calloway's house, well then William Wells Brown grew up next door to Daniel Boone. I looked hard for physical evidence of what that area looked like. Of course the most wonderful, but nonexistent photograph would've been a likeness of the young cabin, but this is Flanders Calloway's homestead. No date. I don't know when it was taken. Looks to me to be 19th century, but this would be very close. Young's house would've been much larger, and much fancier. A year later Ricky and I after a year or eight or nine months in Wooster, on our drive back to Dallas. We're now in the summer of 2010, decided that we would come back via the southern route. And that was primarily an attempt to find both the white and the black sides of Brown's family. Brown's father was a white man, and we found his father. We found out a lot about him. We found Dr. Young, who was a first cousin of the father, and we looked very, very hard for Brown's mother, Elizabeth. And that I have to say was a labor of ultimate frustration. We got we thought very close in Virginia. We think she was born in Virginia, but we never found her. In any event, we decided on the last day of that 13 month trip that we would return as kind of rounding a circle that we would return to Martinsville and by this point how does one write a book like this. One relies on a lot of professional friends, librarians, archivists, scholars, and we by appointment met up with the director of the local historical society. That's Kathy Sharpinwars, as well as the head of the Missouri State archives from St. Louis, Mike Everman, and his wife Diane, a professional archaeologist. And by the time we met up with them in July of 2010, we realized that we were standing the whole time. The moment we got out of her car the year before, all the land around. The place of the restoration, the municipal park, the parking lot, the cornfields all around, and the town of Martinsville on the top of the hill that all of this was the original John Young estate., Which is to say, the moment we got out of our car, we were walking on the same land on which William Wells Brown had spent his childhood. So we came back we hoped to see what we could see through the eyes of professionals. And so, Ricky's taking the photographs. Here we are walking the grounds, and it probably hasn't changed all that much. The lower lying land. This is very fertile land is very close to the Missouri River, midsummer, lots of corn growing. So we walked the land looking for marks like survey marks of the original plot. Here we are further along, and I'm afraid not much really to see. A restoration. This is actually in the center of Martinsville. We did find some of the original spots where Young owned property in Marthasville. We don't know where the original house was. You know, I suppose that somebody with supersonic technology, you know, maybe Henry Louis Gates could get an aircraft fly over this area, you know, with sensory devices, and find, you know, where the bones, you know, of the historical past were. We did this, you know, the hard way. And just to update the historical narrative, because we are talking about one of the pioneers of African-American history. Four years later I think, thanks to Kathy Sharpinwars they've put up a new sign. This went up in the last four months. Sorry, it's not a very good photograph. But finally, in the year of his bicentennial, William Wells Brown has entered the official narrative of Marthasville and Missouri history. I'm going to skip over a segment. Sorry, we just don't have enough time. I want to talk a little bit about archives. That was our first archive, in a manner speaking. The remains of a physical location and the narrative that got attached to it. William Wells Brown spent five years in England, technically is a fugitive slave from 1849 to 1854. While in England he brought out an Anglo-Irish edition of his narrative. He brought out a new edition of his songbook. He wrote the first African-American travelogue three years in England. And he brought out -- he wrote and brought out the first African-American novel. He was a busy man. All of that he did on the side. He was the best known African-American lecturer in the British Isles in the 1850's. He was a phenomenon. The reason he went in the beginning, besides his sheer interest in spreading his wings, was that even though a noncitizen, technically a nonperson in the United States. He was an official delegate to the third international peace Congress meeting in Paris, France. And while there, he was one of the most electrifying speakers there. He made some very important contacts. One was with an English aristocrat by the name of John Lee. The strangest kind of an aristocrat. An aristocrat who leaned left. And Lee, who was by way a cousin of the Lee's of Virginia, including Robert E Lee, took a quick interest in Brown and invited him when they got back to England, as well as some of the other delegates, to come visit at his country estate about an hour north of London. And here you have a measure of a live person born in the slave shanty in the bluegrass country of Kentucky, an honored guest at one of the finest mansions in all of England. This, by the way, was the site of Louis XVIII court in exile in the early 19th century. It's an absolutely magnificent house. The back view. What makes it most interesting and really the reason that Ricky and I went up there was Brown mentions in his travelogue that Lee had his name inscribed on a brick, and the brick installed -- Lee was one of the leading amateur astronomers in the British Isles. In the vault of Lees Observatory. It was the firmament of great people. I don't know who the other folks were, and we were hoping that we would actually get a chance. We had to figure out how to get into this house. But once we had done that, get a chance to see this remarkable testament to the young William Wells Brown. Well, it turns out, everything we looked for physically in England, from Brown's period, just about everything, no longer existed. This great house suffered a major fire in the early 1960's. They restored it, but they had no reason to restore the observatory, so that part was gone. We figured though it would have been the corner that abut outward on this side, on the left side. Now, very quickly I want to circle back to the United States, and to Brown's view of Washington. And as I said, it's not an entirely happy view of our nation's capital in the 1850's. While in England, Brown had Washington on his mind. He read the American newspapers. He knew what was going on with the Fugitive Slave Bill. It basically meant he was staying in England for a good long time. He couldn't come back, too well-known. And so he dug in and did quite a lot of writing. Two particular works by Brown that relates to the portrayal of Washington, and they're both very interesting and very powerful. Brown produced the first African-American panorama that was shown in the British Isles. The panorama was an enormous narrative painting done on heavy canvas, rolled up on scrolls, and presented in a way that might remind one of moving pictures. It was a form of visual technology that basically was the precedent to the predecessor to moving pictures. Brown apparently commissioned 250 yards of canvas in 24 views, and he would perform. He would show it at night in a dimly lit room. He would often sing. He was a wonderful singer, and he would tell the story. One of the 24 views was his view of Washington. And basically what Brown was doing was rewriting American narrative history from an African-American point of view, as well as the visuals that went with it turning them into a kind of visual art that was suitable for the presentation of African-Americans and African-American history. This was enormously ambitious tasks. Virtually none of the old panoramas have survived. But Brown's had a catalog, so we know from the catalog what the panorama, what the 24 views looked like. One of them is very reminiscent. For those of you who have seen 12 Years a Slave, you may remember that the director made a point when Northrop is being held in a Washington prison of cutting out and showing the tops of buildings with the top of the capital sticking up to give the viewer a sense of the proximity, in a manner speaking of slavery and freedom. The problem of American democracy, and that was one of Brown's scenes. Brown's is even richer. Brown's takes place in 1848 when there's a mass celebration in Washington of the revolutions for freedom that had broken out across Europe. And in the backdrop, are the slave pens. And for Brown this was the correct way of presenting American history, and especially our nation's capital. At that point, Brown had never been to Washington. He would come actually only after the Civil War. He was a generalization of the Freedman's Monument to Abraham Lincoln. The other work, visual work that Brown produced, this may be familiar to least a few of you is the famous illustration from his novel, Clotel. Clotel, the story, fictitious, but not entirely an accurate story of the slave daughter of Thomas Jefferson and Jefferson's slave girl Sally. At the end of the story Clotel returns to rescue her daughter held in Virginia, is recaptured, sent off to Washington to be held in a slave pen until she can be transported back to her master in Mississippi. Escapes the slave pens, runs across Washington and is running across the long bridge from Washington to Alexandria. She's cut off on both ends, and in desperation, as this illustration shows jumps to her death. For William Wells Brown, historian of America and the African-American experience, Washington DC was the nub of the problem. And from his perspective. Remember, he's still in London unable to get back to the United States. This was the situation in the United States through the 1850s, and perhaps I should close on a more hopeful note. As I mentioned, after the Civil War, Brown would come to Washington for the first time and he was, I think it was in 1867 he came to Washington, Maryland and Virginia. He met officials. He took in the city. He met the African-American community, and he went out into the country to meet the real people, his people. The people he'd grown up with, for the most part in Missouri. And he came away enormously optimistic. And as generalizations of the Freedman's Memorial to Lincoln thought this was the proper way that we can pay respect to the great emancipator. That actually was a project that had a very complicated history, but Brown eventually came around to seeing Washington. You know, as we say today, is Washington the problem or the solution? William Wells Brown would say yes, and yes. Thank you for your attention. [ Applause ] >> I have a few questions Ezra. Yes. >> So how did you -- I've never until today I never heard of William Wells Brown. So did you discover him and what led you to, you know, take on this task, you know, uncovering his life and trying to put together this little bits of information of, you know, of putting his story together. Thank you so much for doing so. >> This is a question I've been asked many times as I was working on the project. Why write a biography of Brown? And, you know, I think the way you're posing the question leads to part of the answer. That this was a story, a life story that needed to be written. This was an absolutely amazing life. You know, in one sense Brown was the most inventive cultural creative figure in the United States in the 19th century. And I'm a lover of Whitman. I put in a lot of time on Whitman, but Brown did more things in more ways, and that's part of the answer also. I knew of Brown as the author of Clotel. American Lit scholars have known about Clotel for a long time. When I read his play, his historic play, The Escape, I was absolutely stunned. It was to my mind, to my sense immediately one of the best American place of the 19th century. And almost totally unknown, and almost totally unstaged, except when in his own life Brown took it on the road and did one-man recitations of all the roles. All the white roles, all the black roles, so I thought, you know, all these works by one person, a narrative of a life. One of the most amazing lives of the 19th century, and, you know, you always have to ask yourself is this something that I can do. You know, does it fit my skill set? And then I guess the final ingredient was his sensibility spoke to my sensibility. You know, in a basic way, I get Brown. >> Thank you. [ Inaudible ] >> Was he self educated? >> Right. No formal education. We think he was functionally illiterate when he escaped at the age of 19. You know, and so by our standards when our kids are often colleged. Brown could not read or write. I'm going to be in Lexington, Kentucky next week. Lexington believes that Brown was born there, and that's unfortunately not correct. Close, but not correct. And I'm going to be speaking at a number of high schools and I think one of the things I want to say to the kids is, you know, everybody here reads and writes. You have prospects, but Brown, by contrast, like the vast majority of American slaves was illiterate, and in spite of a prodigious intelligence, just extraordinary capacities, he was a victim of slavery. And in many regards a typical victim. And so part of the question for me as a biographer, once he escaped was how did he educate himself? How did he get educated? And there's no real evidence. I mean you have to make a lot of guesses, and the answer that I came up with, which I'm pretty happy about until the negative criticism starts coming in. I may have to rethink this, but I think two things happened. Part of it was self-education. And this was a young man just bursting with creative energies, and he wanted to learn, and he had that inner spirit. But the other part, which I think was actually also typical among African-Americans freed or self freed from slavery was he was educated by the community. The people around him, and there actually is one tiny piece of evidence that Brown was taught in part by his wife. He married a young woman in Cleveland within six months or eight months of his escape. And I think it was a communal enterprise, common that African-Americans helped one another in many ways, but once chief way was to become educated. And so I did look for things like, you know, I looked up every African-American in the city of Cleveland. There were only 50 or 60 when Brown got there in 1834, and looked for philanthropic self-help organizations in Cleveland. In fact, African-Americans were trying to start a school, so I think the story is partially one of, you know, of individual initiative and the other is communal responsibility. >> I have a quick question for you about the article sources that you used. Were there a lot or what did you find and where were they located? Were they in Kentucky? Were they in Ohio? Because it sounds like there weren't a lot. There wasn't a lot of traces left to find. >> They're never enough, first of all. That's just the way it is. About the questions about the archival sources. How ample they were and where they were to be found, because there were no central archives, and because Brown presumably -- this was an important research question. What happened to Brown's archives? Brown was one of the best read African-Americans in the United States. He read prodigiously. He must've had a large library at home. He was a professional writer for 40 years. He went from book to book, and he updated them, which meant that he was probably using earlier editions as manuscript copies. He had a prodigious correspondence. He was well known, lots of friends, interesting friends. What happened to it all? And the answer is, we don't know. But the necessity therefore was to go everywhere that there were Brown associations. Also to research his friends, and colleagues. And I said earlier that I tried to write Brown into the larger context. They're powerful reasons for doing that, and one was that, that was Brown's basic premise. I mentioned Whitman. Whitman thought of himself as utterly exceptional, and his exceptionalism allowed him to turn himself into a representative figure. It's a paradox. Brown never thought of himself as exceptional. He thought of himself as an African-American, and so what he wrote, even how he wrote was part in parcel of being one of the people. And therefore a way to get at Brown was to go through the lives and sometimes the archives of his fellows. The obvious figure is Frederick Douglass, and Brown and Douglass are look-alikes in many ways. You know, they're both white father, black mother, exceptional prodigious young people. Authors of two of the great fugitive slave narratives, print-based figures, public speakers, and, in fact, they often worked in concert. So I would work, if I couldn't go into Brown through the front door, you know, I'd have to find an alternative way. And a lot of that meant just going archives wherever Brown lived. >> How about the [inaudible] papers? I mean did you find much in the way of correspondence? >> Well, we are the Library of Congress, and the great archive in the field is the Frederick Douglass papers. And their relationship, I found scattered bits and pieces. It's actually a little bit disappointing. There are no personal letters. And by the way, personal letter from Brown to Douglass would be, how dare you. It would start with an antagonistic statement. Douglass and Brown had a very difficult relationship. In some ways it shouldn't be surprising. These are big men, and when big men or big people get into a room there's just not enough oxygen to supply to, you know two major breathing apparatuses. But there were professional connections. Brown probably began his European travelogue as a series of letters that were written to first to the Northstar, Frederick Douglass's paper. And then when that switched over to the paper called Frederick Douglass's Paper they were in a professional relationship. That was probably the first stage and then Brown probably figured these are really good and I can turn it into a book. And there are documents relating to that. And there are a couple of scattered letters. One of the coincidences is that the family that bought the freedom of Frederick Douglass, a family from Newcastle in England was the same family that bought the freedom of William Wells Brown. Their name was Richardson. These were remarkably fine people. Ellen Richardson is really remarkable human being and both Douglass and Brown were very close to Ellen Richardson, and Richardson's correspondence with Douglass is here in the Library of Congress. And when she wrote Douglass she often associated Douglass with Brown and would ask, you know, what's new with my old friend William who hasn't written me in X number of years. So, you know, there are some very small, but very cherished moments. >> We have one more and then we'll do the book signing. When I saw Ezra earlier today of course I was thinking and I'm telling him now that a number of people who are here are associated with the Daniel Murray connection with the Library of Congress, which is the name of our staff association. And so I had to ask Ezra little bit about Daniel Murray, and the original book I had was the publishers advance copy. And I just got it yesterday, and I hadn't looked -- this had had no index and so I looked today and there was something about Daniel Murray in your book. Do you want to say just a few words about Murray and, you know, his significance, and a little bit about, I mean, do you think he ever met, have they ever met? >> I don't think -- Brown died in 1884. >> So [inaudible] >> To early, but, you know, this really raises the question for me. Murray was a way of finding a central figure in the history of the reputation of African-American literature and culture. And of course the date of the Paris exposition, 1900 was very nice. I said in my introduction that Brown's reputation faded virtually into obscurity after his death in the 1880's, and the reason was Jim Crow. That's an overstatement. Brown's reputation remained alive in the black community, and Daniel Murray was very much aware of Brown and Brown's peers. This was an amazing generation, Brown, Jacobs, Taubman, Garnet, Delaney. One can go on and on, and they were all born within five years of each other. And it's the same generation that gives us Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman, and one can go on. We know what happened to the reputation of white writers, that they became canonized. For me, Daniel Murray was a way of trying to figure out what official status did African-Americans have as Jim Crow was taking over the American North and the American South. The Library of Congress was a bit of an asylum, a haven from much of that. In any event, I wanted to know what books did Murray take over? You know, what African-American monuments were going to be put on display, and remember the idea was to put them on display in two national capitals. In France and then bring them back to the Library of Congress and put them on display in Washington. >> For the exhibition of 190 -- >> 1900. The [inaudible] >> 1900. >> The great French Exposition, one of the world's greatest world's fairs. And he took five titles by Brown. Brown had written over a dozen books, and this was interesting too. What part of the African-American experience did Murray want to present in Paris? And interestingly, he did not take many fugitive slave narratives, for example. He did -- I don't believe he took Douglass's. I'd have to check that. He certainly didn't take Brown's. He did take Harriet Jacobs, but he didn't know Harriet Jacobs real name. But that was a moment where people like Dubois and Callaway and Murray thought this is our opportunity. And unfortunately it was a very short-lived moment of brilliance, and -- >> They blew it. [laughs] >> As far as I know Murray's collection didn't even come back to the Library of Congress whole. Part of it is now at Howard, for example. >> Well that's true, and I was telling Ezra one of my first jobs when I came to the Library of Congress was to sort out, and I was an intern before the Center for the Book was created and interested in collection development. And I was asked to help sort out what was then called the Colored Author Collection, that was the leftover part of the Murray Collection, and with these labels across them. But I did it in conjunction with a wonderful woman named Dorothy Porter at Howard. And the agreement was that if we came across duplicates that Howard wanted, they went there and so I was part of that. And the other part of it was to take the wonderful pamphlets that somehow had come back from Paris and index them and put them as the Murray Collection in the rare book and special collections division. So they're bound together in several different volumes, but that's what's left of their heritage in terms of materials. But, of course, his heritage lives on through the association and the fact that there's now a new scholarly interest in Murray. And you mentioned to me a book that someone had done about the exposition and I know of someone who is now doing -- and I have wrote a letter of recommendation for her fellowship. A full-time time, not full-time, but full biography of Murray and his family in Washington, and the role that family played. You know, in terms of what is a form of the author thinks of, you know, black elitism in a way, but it has to do with the families and the growth of Murray in his family and is not as much about Murray at the Library of Congresses. I would like to see, but maybe she'll get to that as well. So I'm glad that we introduced the topic again and we can follow up on it. Well, please join us for the book signing outside, but in the meantime, join me in thanking Ezra Greenspan for a wonderful presentation. [Applause] Thank you. >> This has been a presentation of the Library of Congress. Visit us at


Life in slavery

A descendant of Mayflower passenger Stephen Hopkins through his father, William was born into slavery in 1814 (or March 15, 1815) near Lexington, Kentucky, where his mother Elizabeth was a slave (she was of Native American and Black ancestry). She was held by Dr. John Young and had seven children, each by different fathers. (In addition to William, her children were Solomon, Leander, Benjamin, Joseph, Milford, and Elizabeth.) William was of mixed race; his father was George W. Higgins, a white planter and cousin of his master Dr. Young. Higgins formally acknowledged William as his son and made Young promise not to sell him.[4] But Young did sell the boy and his mother. In the end, William was sold several times before he was twenty years old.

His brother Joseph has been identified by researchers Ron L. Jackson Jr. and Lee Spencer White as Joe, the slave of Alamo commander William B. Travis, who was one of the few survivors of the battle.[5]

William spent the majority of his youth in St. Louis. His masters hired him out to work on steamboats on the Missouri River, then a major thoroughfare for steamships and the slave trade. His work allowed him to see many new places. In 1833, he and his mother escaped together across the Mississippi River, but they were captured in Illinois. In 1834, Brown made a second escape attempt, successfully slipping away from a steamboat when it docked in Cincinnati, Ohio, a free state.

In freedom, he took the names of Wells Brown, a Quaker friend who helped him after his escape by providing food, clothes and some money. He learned to read and write, and eagerly sought more education, reading extensively to make up for what he had been deprived.[6] Around this time he was hired by Elijah Lovejoy and worked with the famed abolitionist in his printing office.[7]

Marriage and family

During his first year of freedom in 1834, Brown at age 20 married Elizabeth Schooner. They had two daughters who survived to adulthood: Clarissa and Josephine.[8] William and Elizabeth later became estranged. In 1851, Elizabeth died in the United States.[9]

Brown had been in England since 1849 with their daughters, lecturing on the abolitionist circuit. After his freedom was purchased in 1854 by a British couple, Brown returned with his daughters to the US, settling in Boston.[9] On April 12, 1860, the 44-year-old Brown married again, to 25-year-old Anna Elizabeth Gray in Boston.[9][10]

In 1856, Well's daughter Josephine Brown published Biography of an American Bondman (1856), 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.[8]

Move to New York

From 1836 to about 1845, Brown made his home in Buffalo, New York, where he worked as a steamboat man on Lake Erie. He helped many fugitive slaves gain their freedom by hiding them on the boat to take them to Buffalo, or Detroit, Michigan or across the lake to Canada. He later wrote that during the seven-month period of time from May to December 1842, he had helped 69 fugitives reach Canada.[11][12] Brown became active in the abolitionist movement in Buffalo by joining several anti-slavery societies and the Negro Convention Movement. Brown's work in anti-slavery societies often included public speaking, and he frequently used music as part of his performance. Brown's use of music in his speeches emphasizes music's role in the anti-slavery movement of the 1840s.[13] While living in Buffalo, Brown also organized a Temperance Society, which quickly gained 500 members. At the time there were only 700 blacks living in Buffalo.[1]

Tens of thousands of slaves escaped to Canada. The First Report of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada estimated that by 1852, 30,000 "Negro refugees" had reached Canada.[14]

Years in Europe

In 1849, Brown left the United States with his two young daughters to travel in the British Isles to lecture against slavery. He wanted them to gain the education he had been denied.[9][15] He was also traveling that year as a representative of the US at the International Peace Congress in Paris. Given passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in the US, which increased penalties and more severely enforced capture of fugitive slaves, he chose to stay in England until 1854. That year his freedom was purchased by British friends. As a highly visible public figure in the US, he was at risk for capture as a fugitive and re-enslavement. Slave catchers were paid high bounties to return slaves to their owners, and the new law required enforcement even by free states and their citizens, although many resisted.

Brown lectured widely to antislavery circuits in the UK to build support for the US movement. He often showed a metal slave collar as demonstration of the institution's evils.[16] An article in the Scotch Independent reported the following:

By dint of resolution, self-culture, and force of character, he [Brown] 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.[17]

Brown also used this time to learn more about the cultures, religions, and different concepts of European nations. He felt that he needed always to be learning, in order to catch up and live in a society where others had been given an education when young. In his 1852 memoir of travel in Europe, he wrote,

He who escapes from slavery at the age of twenty years, without any education, as did the writer of this letter, must read when others are asleep, if he would catch up with the rest of the world.[6]

At the International Peace Conference in Paris, Brown faced opposition while representing the country that had enslaved him. Later he confronted American slaveholders on the grounds of the Crystal Palace.[18]

Based on this journey, Brown wrote Three Years in Europe: or Places I Have Seen And People I Have Met. His travel account was popular with middle-class readers as he recounted sightseeing trips to the foundational monuments of European culture. In his Letter XIV, Brown wrote about his meeting with the Christian philosopher Thomas Dick in 1851.[19]

Abolition orator and writer

After his return to the US, Brown gave lectures for the abolitionist movement in New York and Massachusetts. He soon focused on anti-slavery efforts. His speeches expressed his belief in the power of moral suasion and the importance of nonviolence. He often attacked the supposed American ideal of democracy and the use of religion to promote submissiveness among slaves. Brown constantly refuted the idea of black inferiority.

Due to his reputation as a powerful orator, Brown was invited to the National Convention of Colored Citizens, where he met other prominent abolitionists. When the Liberty Party formed, he chose to remain independent, believing that the abolitionist movement should avoid becoming entrenched in politics. He continued to support the Garrisonian approach to abolitionism. He shared his own experiences and insight into slavery in order to convince others to support the cause.

Literary works

In 1847, he published his memoir, the Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself, which became a bestseller across the United States, second only to Frederick Douglass' slave narrative memoir. Brown critiques his master's lack of Christian values and the customary brutal use of violence by owners in master-slave relations.

Clotel, or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States
Clotel, or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States

When Brown lived in Britain, he wrote more works, including travel accounts and plays. His first novel, entitled Clotel, or, The President's Daughter: a Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, was published in London in 1853. It portrays the fictional plight of two mulatto (mixed-race) daughters born to Thomas Jefferson and one of his slaves. His novel is believed to be the first written by an African American.[20]

Historically, Jefferson's household was known to include numerous mixed-race slaves, and there were rumors since the early 19th century that he had children with a slave, Sally Hemings. In 1826 Jefferson freed five mixed-race slaves in his will; some historians now believe that two brothers, Madison and Eston Hemings, were among his four surviving children from his long-term relationship with Sally Hemings.[21] However, some historians disagree.

As Brown's novel was first published in England and not until later in the United States, it is not the first novel by an African American published in the US. This credit goes to either Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859) or Julia C. Collins' The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride (1865).

Most scholars agree that Brown is the first published African-American playwright. Brown wrote two plays after his return to the US: Experience; or, How to Give a Northern Man a Backbone (1856, unpublished and no longer extant) and The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (1858). He read the latter aloud at abolitionist meetings in lieu of the typical lecture.

Brown continually struggled with how to represent slavery "as it was" to his audiences. For instance, in an 1847 lecture to the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, Massachusetts, he said, "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."[22]

Brown also wrote several histories, including The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (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 (1873). His last book was another memoir, My Southern Home (1880).

Later life

Brown stayed abroad until 1854. Passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law had increased his risk of capture even in the free states. Only after the Richardson family of Britain purchased his freedom in 1854 (they had done the same for Frederick Douglass), did Brown return to the United States. He quickly rejoined the anti-slavery lecture circuit.[23]

Perhaps because of the rising social tensions in the 1850s, Brown became a proponent of African-American emigration to Haiti, an independent black republic in the Caribbean since 1804. He decided that more militant actions[clarification needed] were needed to help the abolitionist cause.

During the American Civil War and in the decades that followed, Brown continued to publish fiction and non-fiction books, securing his reputation as one of the most prolific African-American writers of his time. He also helped recruit blacks to fight for the Union in the Civil War. He introduced Robert John Simmons from Bermuda to the abolitionist Francis George Shaw, father of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the commanding officer of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

While continuing to write, Brown was active in the Temperance movement as a lecturer. After studying homeopathic medicine, he opened a medical practice in Boston's South End while keeping a residence in Cambridge. In 1882 he moved to the nearby city of Chelsea.[24]

William Wells Brown died on November 6, 1884 in Chelsea, Massachusetts at the age of 70.

Legacy and honors

  • He is the first African American to publish a novel with Clotel, or, The President's Daughter: a Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, in 1853 in London (Harriet Wilson's Our Nig published in 1859, is the first novel published by an African American in the United States).
  • An elementary school in Lexington, Kentucky, where he spent his early years, is named after him.
  • He was among the first writers inducted to the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.[2]
  • A historic marker marks the approximate location of his home in Buffalo[25]
  • Wells' portrait by Buffalo, N.Y.-based artist Edreys Wajed is one of twenty-eight civil rights icons depicted on the Freedom Wall, commissioned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, completed in September 2017.



  1. ^ a b Farrison, W. Edward (1949-01-01). "William Wells Brown, Social Reformer". The Journal of Negro Education. 18 (1): 29–39. doi:10.2307/2966437. JSTOR 2966437.
  2. ^ a b "Kentucky's First Writer « The Big Idea".
  3. ^ The Works of William Wells Brown: Using His 'Strong, Manly Voice', Eds. Paula Garrett and Hollis Robbins, Oxford University Press, 2006, xvii-xxxvi.
  4. ^ T.N.R. Rogers, "Introduction", William Wells Brown, Clotel or The President's Daughter. Mineola/NewYork: Dover Publications Inc., 2004
  5. ^ Ron L. Jackson Jr. and Lee Spencer White, "Joe: The Slave Who Became an Alamo Legend". University of Oklahoma Press, 2015.
  6. ^ a b Brown, William W. Three Years In Europe: Places I Have Seen And People I Have Met, London, 1852.
  7. ^ Simmons, William J., and Henry McNeal Turner. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising. GM Rewell & Company, 1887. pp447-450
  8. ^ a b Williamson, Jenn (2004). "Josephine Brown". Documenting the American South. Retrieved 19 April 2014.
  9. ^ a b c d See confession letter published in The National Era, reprinted in The Works of William Wells Brown Archived 2011-05-22 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ Farrison, William Edward. William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1969), p. 290.
  11. ^ Brown, William Wells. "Narrative of William W. Brown", in Slave Narratives, eds William Andrews and Henry Louis Gates (Literary Classics of United States Inc, 2000), 374 -423.
  12. ^ Farrison, William E. "William Wells Brown in Buffalo", Journal of Negro History, v.XXXIX, no. 4, October 1954.
  13. ^ "EBSCO Publishing Service Selection Page". Retrieved 2016-09-21.
  14. ^ Benjamin Drew, "Preface", A North-Side View of Slavery. The Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada, Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1856
  15. ^ Garret & Robbins, xxiv.
  16. ^ Greenspan (2008), William Wells Brown.
  17. ^ Brown, William W. The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements, New York: Thomas Hamilton, 1963. Article from the Scotch Independent, June 20, 1852.
  18. ^ Greenspan, Ezra William Wells Brown; A Reader, The University of Georgia, Athens & London, 2008.
  19. ^ s:Three Years in Europe/Letter XIV.
  20. ^ Nelson, Randy F. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981: 67. ISBN 0-86576-008-X.
  21. ^ "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account", Monticello Website, accessed 22 June 2011, Quote: "Ten years later [referring to its 2000 report], TJF [Thomas Jefferson Foundation] and most historians now believe that, years after his wife's death, Thomas Jefferson was the father of the six children of Sally Hemings mentioned in Jefferson's records, including Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston Hemings."
  22. ^ Botelho, Keith M. " 'Look on this picture, and on this': Framing Shakespeare in William Wells Brown's The Escape", Comparative Drama 39:2 (Summer 2005): 187-212: 194.
  23. ^ "BBC - Tyne - History - There's Death in the Pot!".
  24. ^ Farrison (1969), p. 402
  25. ^ "William Wells Brown". Historic Marker Project. Historic Marker Project. Retrieved 1 June 2016.


External links

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