Profiles: William Wells Brown
Each week during Black History Month, we will feature stories of African Americans who made History Happen—through the legacy of slave narratives, art and music, or activism in the civil rights movement.
William Wells Brown was born into slavery in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1814. His master moved William, his mother, and six siblings to a farm outside St. Louis in 1827, and it was there that he witnessed the insufferable cruelty and injustice of slavery.
Under his master, Dr. John Young, William was hired out as a steamboat steward, a hotel keeper’s servant, and a press operator in the printing office of one Elijah Parish Lovejoy. At the time, Lovejoy was editor and part owner of the political newspaper the St. Louis Times.
After many attempts, Brown successfully escaped to the North in 1834. He made a new life for himself in Buffalo, New York, where he was a conductor for the Underground Railroad, using his position as a steam boatman to ferry escaped slaves to freedom in Canada.
While still a fugitive, Brown earned prominence speaking out against the evils of slavery during the 1830s and 1840s. He lectured for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society and the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. It was during this time that he wrote an autobiographical account of his life as a slave. The Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself was published in 1847, two years after Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, and was part of a literary genre—the slave narrative—aimed at abolishing slavery. The narratives were read by white, middle-class, northern audiences who wanted to learn about slavery and its atrocities.
From 1849 to 1854, Brown traveled and lived in Europe. He spoke out against slavery and absorbed other cultures and religions. While abroad, he wrote his first novel, Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, which is often credited as the first novel written by an African American (though not the first one published in the United States). Brown was a prolific writer, and his works included fiction and nonfiction. Many scholars also consider Brown to be the first African American playwright.
Brown died at age 68 in 1884 in Chelsea, Massachusetts.
—Keri O'Brien, Editor
"Documenting the American South" website. http://docsouth.unc.edu/
Fox, Tim. “The Longest Year I Ever Lived”: The Narrative of William Wells Brown. Gateway 18, no. 4 (1998): 36.
Wright, John A. Discovering African American St. Louis, 2d ed. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society, 2002.