Of the many fascinating men and women in Black history, few have offered the intrigue and mystery of William Wells Brown. His adventurous passage across the landscape of the 19th century, from the plantation to the upper reaches of London, marked him—like the incomparable Frederick Douglass—among those deserving a fuller biography than the usual scant footnote here and there.
That definitive bio, if some reviewers are believed, has arrived thanks to the research of historian Ezra Greenspan in his “William Wells Brown—An African American Life.” A recent review of the book in The New York Times by noted scholar Nell Irvin Painter provides an admiring glimpse into his complex but tantalizing life. At the end of her review, she says of Greenspan’s book, “Its depth of field keeps Brown in focus as a singular individual while capturing those around him with clarity.”
In his brief mention of Brown in his book “The Negro in the Making of America,” the esteemed teacher and historian Benjamin Quarles wrote that Brown was a “runaway [slave] who became an anti-slavery lecturer, spent five years in the British Isles, arousing abolitionist sentiment wherever he went. Brown was a prolific writer, turning out, among other works, the first novel and the first play written by a Negro.” He further notes that Brown was “interested in reforms not peculiarly racial—for example, women’s rights, prison relief, temperance and world peace.”
Add to this his travel book (another first on the list of achievements by a Black author) and his two books on African-American history, especially his book “The Negro in the American Rebellion,” published in 1867.
But any discussion of Brown’s illustrious legacy begins with his own slave narrative, which ranks among the best accounts we have of that dark chapter in the American odyssey. Brown relates an incident that occurred during a time when he was a house servant to his master and mistress, when he often indulged in a sip of mint julep that was part of his owners’ morning ritual before breakfast. He confessed his enjoyment of the drink he took while others were deeply engrossed in prayer. “By the time prayer was over,” he wrote, “I was about as happy as any of them.
“A sad accident happened one morning,” he continued. “In helping myself, and at the same time keeping an eye on my old mistress, I accidently let the pitcher fall upon the floor, breaking in pieces, and spilling the contents. This was a bad affair for me; for as soon as prayer was over, I was taken and severely chastised.”
Shortly after this incident, Brown, called William with no surname, began his eventful journey from one slaveholder to another until his escape in 1834.
Usually when Brown’s birth is given, there’s a question mark after 1814, meaning there is some uncertainly about its accuracy, a not uncommon designation for Black people born in bondage without any certification, unless they happened to be included on their master’s inventory of property.
Brown was born on a plantation near Lexington, Ky. Like many mulattoes of his time, he was the offspring of his slave master and one of his slave women, named Elizabeth. As the master’s child, he was consigned to the house, though later he would work in a number of capacities as a “rented” slave, including printer’s helper, a medical assistant and a handy man.
When he learned that he was going to be sold, Brown began hatching his first escape, which was unsuccessful because he was determined to liberate his mother as well. Becoming the property of a new owner in 1834 gave Brown the opportunity he was seeking to escape, and after several days traveling by night across the state of Ohio, Brown was free. This escape was facilitated by a Quaker family from whom he acquired the Wells Brown part of his name.
For nearly the full extent of the next decade, he worked on boats that plied Lake Erie, and this also gave him the cover he needed as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, assisting runaway slaves to freedom.
Perhaps influenced by Douglass, Brown wrote his slave narrative in 1847, two years after the popularity of Douglass’ first of three narratives. Soon, his book rivaled Douglass’ among bestseller books, though stylistically they were dissimilar. Rather than the heroic presentation and self-reflection in Douglass’ narrative, Brown’s writing is without a lot of rhetorical flourish and literary asides—things abundantly found in his novel and play.
From 1849 to 1854, floating on his reputation as an author and anti-slavery advocate, Brown lived in England, where he was in great demand. When he wasn’t on the lecture tour, he was busy writing, with none of his other works commanding the same attention that was given to his book “Clotel—The President’s Daughter,” based on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress, Sally Hemings. Most rewarding from the book is the well-developed characters in the novel, and none more complete than the woman herself. She stands in stark contrast to the tragic mulatto theme that would become so popular during the period.
Like Douglass, Brown’s long stay in England was good in so many wonderful ways. His benefactors amassed enough money to purchase his freedom, thus allowing him to return to the States. Back home, he resumed his anti-slavery activism as well as working on what would become one of the most comprehensive books on African-American history—“The Rising Son: Or, the Antecedents and Advancement of the Colored Race” (1874), which included more than 100 biographies of notable Black Americans.
Right to the end of his productive life, Brown found ways to serve the people as a doctor, refining those skills he had picked up during his days as a medical assistant, and completing his last book, a sentimental account of his days in slavery.
Brown died Nov. 6, 1884 in Chelsea, a suburb of Boston. In Lexington, Ky., an elementary school bears his name.