William Wells Brown ~1814-1884


African American History of Western New York

William Wells Brown (ca. 1814-1884) was born a slave in Lexington, Kentucky, the son of Elizabeth, a slave woman, and a white relative of his owner. He grew up near St. Louis, Mo. While still a boy William was hired out to the captain of a St. Louis steamboat in the booming Mississippi River trade. After a year he was put to work in the printing office of Elijah P. Lovejoy, a well-known abolitionist. While working again on a steamboat, Brown escaped slavery to freedom in January 1834. He adopted the name of a Quaker, Wells Brown, who aided him when he was a runaway. He spent next two years working on a Lake Erie steamboat and running fugitive slaves into Canada. In the summer 1834, he met and married Elizabeth Spooner, a free black woman; they had three daughters, one of whom died shortly after birth. In 1836 Brown moved to Buffalo (see Brown's autobiography of Buffalo years), where he began his career in the abolitionist movement by regularly attending meetings of the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society, by boarding antislavery lecturers at his home, speaking at local abolitionist gatherings, and by traveling to Cuba and Haiti to investigate emigration possibilities.

William Wells Brown

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In the early 1840's Brown operated one of the lake steamers and was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. As an officer on what might have been called the Lake Erie Division of this railroad, he was popular and busy. Between the first of May and the first of December, 1842, he carried sixty-nine fugitive slaves to Canada. In 1843 on a trip to southern Ontario, he renewed acquaintances with many Negroes whom he had helped to get there. In the village of Malden alone he saw seventeen who had been his passengers.

A slave catcher from Nashville, Tennessee came to Western New York to recapture the Stanfords, a couple and their infant child who had sought refuge in St. Catherines, Ontario. The slavers were successful, but during their return trip the reached Hamburg, New York, where a group of Buffalo blacks including Brown, apprehended the party and brought the Stanfords to Buffalo [see also Douglas' Dive]. There, a heavily armed group of fifty Black men escorted the runaways to the Black Rock Ferry. to board the boat to St. Catherines. In the meantime, the slaver appealed to the Erie County sheriff who gathered a posse of seventy men. When the two groups met a melee ensued (and the Stanfords escaped), but the men were arrested and fined moe than a months salary each.

Brown's abolitionist career was marked by a turning point in the summer of 1843 when Buffalo hosted a national antislavery convention and the National Convention of Colored Citizens organized by Abner A. Frances, Henry Moxley (a reverend), the Charles L. Reason (the first Black math professor at a white college). Brown attended both meetings, sat on several committees, and became friends with a number of black abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and Charles Lenox Remond. Brown joined these two in their appeal to the power of moral suasion, their rejection of black antislavery violence (particularly the course espoused by Henry Highland Garnet in his "Address to the Slaves"), and their boycott of political abolitionism.

Later in 1843, William Wells Brown traveled to Attica, New York to lecture in a church on anti-slavery. That evening he tried to secure lodging at the small town's hotels, but was turned away because of his race. He spent the night on the church floor. In 1844 he went to lecture in East Aurora, New York but was pelted with eggs and other foodstuffs.

Brown's expanded service to the antislavery movement, his increasing sophistication as a speaker, and his growing reputation in the antislavery community brought an invitation to lecture before the American Anti-Slavery Society at its 1844 annual meeting in New York City; in May 1847, he was hired as a Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society lecture agent. Brown moved to Boston and by the end of the year, he had published his popular autobiography Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave was published. Its highly dramatic content is set forth in a remarkably detached style. Having educated himself, Brown began lecturing on abolitionism and temperance reform.

In 1849, he began a lecture tour of Britain and remained abroad until 1854. The length of his stay was conditioned by personal and political motives. He was exhilarated by the tour, had time to write, and enjoyed the benefits of reform circle society. He was also trying to recover from the dissolution of his marriage. Quite as important, once the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, it was dangerous for the escaped slave to return to America. Concern for Brown's safety prompted British abolitionists to "purchase" his freedom in 1854.

In a lecture before a small audience on October 4,1854 in Rochester. Brown incidentally referred to his participation during his residence in Buffalo of a rescue of a man who had been accused of being a fugitive slave. According to Brown, on one occasion he and other abolitionists retained Millard Fillmore as counsel "for an alleged fugitive" and that Fillmore served without accepting a fee, explaining that he considered it "his duty to help the poor fugitive." This was the same Fillmore, Brown observed, who as President of the United States had signed the Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850.

His antislavery lectures in Europe inspired Three Years in Europe (1852), which was expanded as The American Fugitive in Europe (1855). When Brown did return to America, he had written Clotel (1853, the story of the daughters and granddaughters of President Thomas Jefferson and his slave Currer), one of the first novels published by an Afro-American . At that time, he was finishing St. Domingo, a work that suggests Brown's growing antislavery militancy. His only published play is The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (1858), a melodrama, with notable comic moments, about two slaves who secretly marry. Brown's historical writings include The Black Man (1863), The Negro in the American Rebellion (1867), and The Rising Son (1873). His final book, My Southern Home: Or, the South and Its People (1880), contains miscellanea about slave life, abolitionism, and racism..

Brown Memorial on Buffalo's
13 Pine Street

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references: [goldman], [brown narrative], ,