William Wells Brown: An frican-American Life

Ezra Greenspan Rescues William Wells Brown from Obscurity in New Biography


A version of this story ran in the October 2014 issue.

Except in households steeped in African-American history, William Wells Brown (1814-1884) is not a household name. Though a contemporary and colleague of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and Sojourner Truth, he is no longer nearly as famous as they are, or as he once was. Since 1940, when the United States Postal Service honored Booker T. Washington, more than 100 African Americans—including Joe Louis, Billie Holiday, Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X and Barbara Jordan—have appeared on postage stamps. Not so William Wells Brown.

Nevertheless, Ezra Greenspan characterizes Brown, a fugitive slave who became a leading abolitionist, as “the most pioneering and accomplished African American writer and cultural impresario of the nineteenth century.” Intent on reviving a reputation that had faded into obscurity, Greenspan, a professor of English at Southern Methodist University, edited William Wells Brown: A Reader (2008) and William Wells Brown: Clotel & Other Writings, published earlier this year by the canonical Library of America.

Greenspan’s biography is the first recounting of Brown’s life since Lucille Schulberg Warner published From Slave to Abolitionist, aimed at young readers, in 1976. And it is the first full biography of Brown since William Edward Farrison’s trailblazing 1969 study, William Wells Brown: Author and Reformer. The new book gives fresh exposure to a restless figure of prodigious enterprise and eclectic interests who was at the center of African-American experience during the antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction periods. It is likely to be definitive for some time.

Anyone wishing to write about Frederick Douglass, Brown’s comrade and rival as an abolitionist leader, can pore through some 7,400 items—correspondence, speeches, memoirs, articles, financial documents—that have been assembled for the convenience of researchers at the Library of Congress. For Brown, most of whose papers have been lost, there is no such archive. A conscientious biographer has to be shrewd and resourceful in gleaning clues from other sources—including contemporary newspaper accounts, government files, and the writings and papers of figures who knew Brown—about a life lived in an era not nearly as meticulous about keeping records, especially of black people, as our own. Greenspan has assembled the portrait of “an endlessly energetic, inquisitive, sociable man” who came into contact with many of the leading figures of his time, from William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips to Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo.
Autobiographical slave narratives were a staple of American publishing in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Brown’s own significant contribution to the genre, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, was first published in 1847, but he embroidered his story in revised editions, speeches and works of fiction throughout his life. He was born in Kentucky to a slave named Elizabeth, and his father, whom he never met, was a white planter named George Higgins whose cousin, Thomas Young, owned Elizabeth. Brown was sold several times, and was also rented out to a series of white masters. Put to work on steamboats plying the Missouri River, he began plotting an escape north. On his first attempt, he and his mother were soon captured and punished. Elizabeth was sold down the river, never to see her son again. A year later, at age 20, Brown succeeded in slipping away from a steamboat docked in Cincinnati. In gratitude to the Quaker who helped smuggle him to freedom, the young man adopted the Quaker’s name: Wells Brown. He became active in spiriting others through the Underground Railroad and speaking out forcefully against the system that reduced human beings to chattel. Boston became his base, but Brown would travel widely and indefatigably for the cause of abolition. Deprived of a formal education, he was a voracious autodidact who reconstructed himself as an orator, performer, author and physician.

Though his last master, Enoch Price, continued through public statements and legal maneuvers to assert his property rights, Brown felt relatively safe as long as he avoided slaveholding states. But passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required law-enforcement officials anywhere in the United States to arrest suspected runaways. Brown, a delegate to the International Peace Congress in Europe at the time, decided it would be prudent not to return home. British abolitionists eventually purchased Brown’s freedom for $300, but not before he had spent five years abroad, becoming, as he put it, “almost an Englishman.”

Ezra Greenspan characterizes Brown, a fugitive slave who became a leading abolitionist, as “the most pioneering and accomplished African American writer and cultural impresario of the nineteenth century.”

Greenspan characterizes Brown’s European interlude as “a period of productivity unprecedented in African American literary history.” He traveled 25,000 miles through the British Isles giving more than 1,000 talks, and wrote both Three Years in Europe: Or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met (1852), the first travelogue by an African American, and Clotel, considered the first novel by an African American. Clotel includes the suicide of a tragic mulatto, a daughter of Thomas Jefferson. A century and a half before DNA tests suggested Jefferson’s paternity of children born to his slave Sally Hemings, Brown dramatized the slaveholding gentry as sexual predators and hypocrites. Published a year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1853, Clotel was, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book, a passionate indictment of what fastidious Southerners dubbed “our peculiar institution.”

Back in the United States, Brown hit the lecture circuit again, a self-described “soldier in this moral warfare against the most cruel system of oppression that ever blackened the character or hardened the heart of man.” Greenspan can only suggest the mesmerizing presence Brown must have been; he was a fiery speaker who also sang to audiences and employed magic-lantern slides and painted panoramas to create multimedia events. The Escape; Or, a Leap for Freedom (1858), the first published play by an African-American, became a tour de force in which Brown, its author, played all the parts.

Abolitionism was as riven by ideological differences and personality conflicts as the civil rights movement a century later. Brown broke with some of his colleagues in his mistrust of Lincoln’s “imbecilic administration” and his advocacy of emigration to Haiti, though he later actively recruited for the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. He clashed with former allies Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton over the exclusion of women from the 15th Amendment. When emancipation ended anti-slavery activism, Brown turned his energies to the temperance movement and even ran, unsuccessfully, as a Prohibition Party candidate for the Massachusetts Senate.

According to Greenspan, both Brown and his fictional characters were “quick-change artists who reinvented themselves whenever circumstances required.” As if to demonstrate that he was not a slave even to conventional expectations, Brown defied the boundaries of the various roles—lecturer, novelist, playwright, historian, physician—that he played. His pioneering contributions to African-American history—The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863); The Negro in the American Rebellion: His Heroism and His Fidelity (1867)—were, like his speeches and novels, a mishmash of scholarship, polemic and personal anecdote. Brown blazed a trail for other African Americans in many genres, but chronological precedence does not guarantee immortality. Mixed-race writer Charles Chesnutt, whose career as author and activist was made possible in part by Brown’s pathbreaking example, dismissed the older man’s books as “mere compilations.” But for anyone seeking to understand the legacy of slavery in the United States, it is not easy to dismiss the life of William Wells Brown.