Feb 14, 2013 - Issue 504

William Wells Brown:
Resourceful Reformer, Author, and Physician
By Dr. Marion Kilson, PhD

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On November 10, 1884 both The Boston Daily Globe and The Boston Herald reported the burial of William Wells Brown in the Cambridge Cemetery; two days before his death had been recorded in six Boston newspapers.[1] At the time of his death Brown was probably seventy years old. Born enslaved near Lexington, Kentucky to an African American field hand and sired by her master’s relative, Brown’s birth date went unrecorded. He thought he had been born in 1814 or thereabouts. From these inauspicious beginnings Brown rose to national and international prominence as an anti-slavery and temperance crusader, a pioneering African American author, and a Boston physician.

Life Story

For almost two decades Brown endured life as a slave. In his case it was a varied life, because after serving as a house servant to Dr. and Mrs. Young as a young boy, he was hired out to various people including an inn keeper, a printer, a slave trader, and a Mississippi steamboat captain; ultimately he was sold twice - first to Samuel Willi, a tailor, and later to Enoch Price, a steamboat owner. Three times Brown attempted to escape to “a land of liberty”; the first two times he was recaptured and punished but the third time he successfully fled from bondage in Cincinnati in 1834. For the following decade he worked on steamers plying the waters of Lake Erie and often brought other fugitives across the Lake on their flights to Canada; he reported that he had carried 69 fugitives to freedom in Canada between May and early December of 1842. In his spare time Brown began to teach himself to read and write by perusing books and newspapers. In the mid1840s he started to lecture on the anti-slavery circuit in western New York arriving in Boston in 1847 to work as an agent with the American Anti-Slavery Society and the New England Anti-Slavery Society. Boston remained Brown’s home until his death, except for five years in Great Britain. In Britain he traveled throughout the British Isles delivering his anti-slavery messages to members of small clubs and to crowds of as many as 3,000. British friends arranged for Brown’s purchase from Enoch Price which enabled him to return a free man to the United States in 1854.[2]

In his half-century of freedom, Brown earned his livelihood by pursuing three different occupations: reformer, author, and physician. Brown did not pursue these occupations successively but simultaneously. He became an accomplished lecturer on the antislavery circuit in the United States and in Great Britain; after the Civil War he continued to lecture focusing on temperance and African American history. Shortly after his arrival in Boston, Brown began his career as an author with two publications in 1847: a book, A Narrative Of William W. Brown A Fugitive Slave Written By Himself, and a pamphlet, Lecture delivered before the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, at Lyceum Hall, Nov. 14, 1847. The following year Brown publishedThe Anti-Slavery Harp: A Collection of Songs for Anti-Slavery Meetings which included some of his own lyrics. His Narrative was an immediate success - selling 3,000 copies within the first six months and going through four editions in two years with 10,000 copies sold.[3] Writing and lecturing were Brown’s principal occupations until in late 1864 he began writing “M.D.” after his name. A year earlier he had written a friend that he had been reading medicine for many years but was not yet prepared to become a fulltime physician. For the last two decades of his life Brown practiced medicine from a Boston office while continuing to pursue his activities as a reformer and an author.[4] William Wells Brown was clearly a consummately efficient multitasker.

Literary Pioneer

Although William Wells Brown probably was better known in his own time as an urbane, ironic, and captivating melodiously voiced lecturer, he is primarily remembered in ours as an African American literary pioneer. Brown wrote autobiography, fiction, drama, poetry and history. A lover of poetry, Brown inserted verses - his own and others’ - into his fiction and non-fiction pieces. He was the first African American to publish a travelogue in 1852, a novel in 1853, a play in 1858, and a military history in 1867. By the time that Brown laid down his pen in 1880, he had published sixteen books and multiple editions of several of these volumes.

As a writer Brown was a recycler extraordinaire of tales. He wrote four versions of his novel, Clotel; Or the President's Daughter. Sometimes only the title and characters’ names changed - Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter in 1853 became Miralda; or, The Beautiful Quadroon in 1861 and sometimes the narrative was altered - the 1864 story of Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States ended in Europe during the Civil War, while Clotelle: or, The Colored Heroine of 1867 ended in the United States during Reconstruction. Brown retold his life story not only in the 1849 edition of The Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave but in the Memoirs which served as introductions to his first historical work The black man: his antecedents, his genius, and his achievements in 1863 and to his last book, My Southern Home: or, The South and Its People in 1880. Two of his historical works, Black Man... (1863) and The rising son, or, The antecedents and advancement of the colored race (1873), contained biosketches of prominent African American men and women 27 of the 57 sketches in The Black Man reappeared among the 81 in The Rising Son in identical words or only slightly altered.

Numerous incidents often fictionalizing his personal experience and revealing his ironic sense of humor recur in different literary works. In both his travelogue, The American Fugitive in Europe. Sketches of Places and People Abroad, and his introductory Memoirs in The Black Man and The Rising Son , he tells the tale of how he threw wet bed sheets out the window of an English inn; when the landlady demanded that he pay for the sheets , Brown responded “’Oh, yes,…I will pay for them; put them in the bill, and I will send the bill to The Times, and have it published, and let the travelling public know how much you charge for wet sheets!’” The landlady’s response was not only to exclude the sheets from his bill but to implore him never to mention the inn in recounting his experience and to provide him with toasty dry sheets the next time he lodged at the inn.[5] In Clotel and in The Negro In The American Rebellion Brown recounted being forced to sit on a flour barrel in an open freight car as he traveled by train through Ohio. When the conductor demanded that Brown pay $1.25 - the same fare as people riding in passenger cars, Brown refused and asked what was charged for 100 lbs. of freight; the conductor replied twenty-five cents. “’Then I’ll pay thirty-seven and a-half cents,’ said I; ‘for I weigh one hundred and fifty pounds.’…Finally, the officer…said ‘Give me thirty-seven and a-half cents, and I’ll set you down as freight.’” Similar incidents recur in different literary works and genres, such as inadvertent comments to a slave mistress about the resemblance of a mulatto child to her slave master husband or the pulling of the wrong tooth by an inept slave medical assistant. 

Brown repeatedly recounted dramatic situations which critically addressed the nature of slavery - the entanglement of southerners, northerners, and slaves in the peculiar institution. Brown recounted the hypocrisy of slave holders, such as the pious Christian master and mistress who cruelly mistreated their enslaved servants; Dr. and Mrs. Young, his original owners, not only appeared in his autobiographical accounts but were the models for Dr. and Mrs. Gaines in his play Escape and in his last book My Southern Home. Northerners also fell under Brown’s critical gaze. In his speech to the Salem Female Anti-Slavery society he commented on how Christians in the North support the slavocracy and in later works he railed against northern color prejudice and its life constraining consequences for African Americans. Moreover, one of the subtexts of Brown’s novel Clotel was how readily Northerners adapted to southern customs: Rev. Peck from Connecticut married and acquired a plantation with 70 slaves and wrote doggerel about “My Little Nig”; Honz Snyder from New York preached to Blacks and poor whites using biblical texts to support slavery; James Crawford from Vermont purchased Althesa as a servant for his wife; and Dr. Henry Morton from Vermont bought and married Althesa erroneously thinking she and their daughters were free and would be free after his death. Blacks were not immune from Brown’s critical gaze; in his writings slaves were both faulted and celebrated for their use of deception and cunning to achieve their interests as well as for color prejudice among themselves. Brown saw American society and character flawed throughout by slavery and its aftermath.

Paula Garrett and Hollis Robbins who have edited a recent collection of William Wells Brown’s writings[6] note that William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglass were both extremely popular antislavery lecturers in their own times, but that we today remember Douglass rather than Brown. Garrett and Robbins contrast their rhetorical styles in these words “William Wells Brown’s rhetorical strategy of evoking culture and addressing the concerns of women…differs greatly from Frederick Douglass’s strategy of muscular, fiery, public oratory. If Douglass represented a cognitive approach to the question of abolition by emphasizing a commitment to the founding principles of America and appealing to the mind, Brown represented the emotional approach by emphasizing his role as a doting father and an urbane man of letters.”[7] Garrett and Robbins provide a feminist explanation for Douglass’ continuing prominence and Brown’s current obscurity: “decisions about anthologizing and canonicity have been the purview of men.”[8]


How did a young man who was illiterate at the time that he escaped to freedom become a cosmopolitan man of letters, an influential orator, and a medical practitioner? I think that William Wells Brown was able to transform himself because he was a keen observer of human behavior. As a young boy he had been a house servant and later had diverse occupational experiences during his enslavement. These experiences exposed him to a great variety of human situations involving both white and black southerners. He observed as Garrett and Robbins suggest that the slaves who succeeded within the American slave system were those who used “guile and deception to protect and advance their interests.”[9] He himself became something of a trickster. He was a man who lived by his wits - how else would one explain the way in which he transformed the wet-sheet incident to his advantage with the innkeeper and the freight-train incident in which he bested the conductor? These are just two of many examples in his life story and his writings of his clever manipulation of situations to achieve his personal goals.

Above all, William Wells Brown was a self-made man, beginning with his name. When he was escaping from Cincinnati towards Cleveland, he was befriended by an elderly Quaker. The man insisted that he must have a surname. Here’s how Brown relates the incident in his autobiographical Narrative: “Since thee has got out of slavery, thee has become a man and men always have two names.”

“I told him that he was the first man to extend the hand of friendship to me, and I would give him the privilege of naming me.

“’If I name thee,’ he said ‘I shall call thee Wells Brown, after myself.’ 

“’But,’ said I, ‘I am not willing to lose my name of William. As it was taken from me once against my will, I am not willing to part with it again upon any terms.’

“’Then,’ said he, ‘I will call thee William Wells Brown.’

“’So be it,’ said I; and I have been known by that name ever since I left the house of my first white friend, Wells Brown.”[10]

Having named himself Brown set out to transform his persona into the celebrated gentlemanly reformer, author, and medical practitioner. As an antislavery reformer he experimented with various formats for conveying his message - lectures, writings including poetry, song, essays, fiction, drama, and even briefly in England a panoramic exhibition of slavery that illustrated his own and others’ experiences and included paintings and a descriptive catalog.[11] In 1856 and 1857 in the United States, Brown substituted reading his plays, The Escape; and Experience, for delivering lectures on the northern anti-slavery circuit with such success that he gave up his formal position as an agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society to freelance as a dramatic reader.

Brown was an inveterant multitasker and compartmentalizer of his experiences. When you read his travelogue of his experiences in Great Britain and in France, you will find descriptions of visits to castles and cathedrals, of meetings with distinguished statesmen and authors, and of visits to graves of prominent dignitaries and poets, but rarely will you find references to his antislavery lectures that occasioned his travels and provided him with his livelihood. In fact, Brown lectured in the evenings and went sightseeing during his days of travel.

As an author, Brown experimented with various genres often recasting the same narrative into fiction and non-fiction. His experiences as a slave and his self-emancipation loomed large in his imagination and formed the core of most of his writing, except in his more general historical works.

What a fascinatingly eclectic and resourceful nineteenth century American William Wells Brown was!

[1]William Edward Farrison, William Wells Brown: Author & Reformer. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), pp.452-453.

[2] Ellen Richardson of Newcastle on Tyne, a member of the family that had bought Frederick Douglass’ freedom, arranged his purchase for $300. (Farrison: 240).

[3] Ibid, p.115.

[4] Ibid, pp. 399-403.

[5] The American Fugitive, pp. 235-236 ; The Black Man, pp. 29-30.

[6] Paula Garrett and Hollis Robbins (eds.). The Works of William Wells Brown: Using His "Strong, Manly Voice" (Collected Black Writings) (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[7] Ibid, p. xxxvi.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, p.xix

[10] William W. Brown, The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. [2nd ed. 1848] (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc. 2003), pp.46-47.

[11] Farrison, pp.173-76

BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator, Dr. Marion Kilson, received her Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from Harvard University in 1967 and retired as Dean of the Graduate School at Salem State University in 2001. Her most recent book, Dancing with the Gods: Essays in Ga Ritual was published this month. Click here to contact Dr. Kilson.