William Wells Brown was born in the year of 1814, the exact date is unknown. He was a prominent black abolitionist lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian.
William was born into slavery in Montgomery County, Kentucky, near the town of Mount Sterling, to a black mother and her white slavemaster. He served various white masters, including the abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy. William worked in Lovejoy’s printing office before he was killed, by a pro-slavery mob and it ignited a spark in himself to fight for black freedom. He mostly taught himself how to read and write, and eagerly sought more education.
After being hired out to several more masters, William had enough. He attempted escape several times before his last escape landed him on a steamboat to Cincinnati, Ohio, a free state, when he was only 19 years of age. With intense study he became extremely good at reading and writing and crafted several journals documenting the conditions and treatment of Black slaves in America.
While working in Europe as an indentured servant he authored his popular autobiography Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave in 1847 which was banned in many states of the US. William married, had two children and took the surnames of Wells Brown, from a Quaker friend who helped his escape by providing food, clothing and money. William and his wife would eventually drift apart, but he continued to raise his two children.
Eventually, he would return to America and settled in Boston, Massachusetts, another free State. There he joined the abolitionist lecture circuit in the North. A contemporary of Frederick Douglass, Brown was overshadowed by Douglass’s charismatic oration and the two often feuded publicly.
His novel Clotel authored in 1853, was the first novel written by an enslaved African in America, was published in London, England, where he was living at the time. The book would not be published in the United States until several years after his death and the total abolishment of slavery in America.
Brown was a pioneer in several different literary genres, including travel writing, fiction, and drama. In 1858 he became the first published Black 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 Blacks in the Revolutionary War.
Over the next two decades, he focused on historical works. These included two histories of the black race, another history on blacks and whites in the American South, and a rare military history of African-Americans in the American Civil War. Brown practiced medicine in Boston until his death in Chelsea, MA, on November 6, 1884.
William Wells Brown was among the first writers inducted to the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, established in 2013. A public school was named for him in Lexington, Kentucky.
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