William Wells Brown (1814? - 1884)
An author, playwright, and lecturer, William Wells Brown is considered one of the first significant African American writers and antislavery activists. His autobiography, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, documents his life as a slave in Missouri and is one of most widely published and influential slave narratives.
William Wells Brown was born a slave around 1814 near Lexington, Kentucky. He was one of seven children by his mother, Elizabeth. His father was likely a male relative of his master, Dr. John Young. In 1816, Dr. Young took William and his family to Missouri territory and they settled on a farm along the Missouri River in what is now Montgomery County. In 1827 they moved again, this time to a farm outside of St. Louis, where William was frequently hired out to local merchants and sometimes steamboat captains, including slave traders. During this time, William was exposed to many people and learned a great deal about life in America outside of the Young household.
In 1832 William attempted to escape slavery with his mother, but they were both caught and taken back to St. Louis. William was sold to a merchant and his mother was put on a boat to New Orleans. It was the last time he ever saw her. Soon, he was sold to riverboat captain Enoch Price, the last man to be his master. On January 1, 1834, while docked in Cincinnati, Ohio, William finally escaped. He was helped by a Quaker man named Wells Brown, and William took his name.
On April 12, 1860, Brown married Anna Elizabeth Gray. The couple had a son, William Wells Brown Jr., in 1861, who died as an infant of cholera, and a daughter named Clotelle on May 8, 1862, who died in 1870 of typhoid fever.
For the remainder of his life, Brown continued to write and lecture. He also became a physician in his later years. He wrote plays, speeches, fiction, and history, and he rewrote his autobiography several times. His final book, My Southern Home; or, The South and Its People, was published in 1880. With both his actions and his words, Brown worked tirelessly on behalf of the abolition movement. His writings brought attention to the plight of slaves and later to free blacks everywhere. Brown died of complications from “tumor of the bladder” on November 6, 1884, and is buried in the Cambridge Cemetery in Chelsea, Massachusetts.