William Wells Brown: First African-American Novelist and Playwright

William Wells Brown. Public Domain


In 1847, while speaking to members of the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, Ma., abolitionist William Wells Brown said, "Were I about to tell you the evils of Slavery, to represent to you the Slave in his lowest degradation, I should wish to take you, one at a time, and whisper it to you. Slavery has never been represented; Slavery never can be represented."

Throughout his career as an abolitionist, Brown used his talent as an orator and writer to expose the immorality of enslavement.

Early Life

Brown was born on a plantation in Kentucky around 1814. His mother was a slave and his father was a white planter named George Higgins. Most of Brown's early life was spent in St. Louis. However, Brown escaped from slavery in 1834 when he left his owner's docked steamboat in Cincinnati.

Life as a Free Man

Brown took the last name of a white Quaker family, Wells Brown, to show gratitude for the help they offered him as a runaway slave. Settling in Cleveland, Brown married Elizabeth Schooner, a free African-American woman and the couple had two daughters.

In 1836, Brown moved his family to Buffalo where he found work on Lake Erie as a steamboat man. It was during this time that Brown became a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Brown and his family assisted runaway slaves by transporting them to Detroit, various parts of upstate New York and Canada.

Brown also became involved in the abolition movement.

By 1843, Brown was working with the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society and speaking to groups about his life as a slave. Brown also joined the Negro Convention Movement. However, he remained a strong believer in moral suasion philosophy as the best way to fight against enslavement.

In 1847, Brown published Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself.

As a result of the narrative's success, Brown began touring throughout the North and Europe.  

However, with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Brown was forced to spend the next five years living in England and lecturing throughout Europe.

While living abroad, Brown received acclaim for his abilities as a speaker and writer. The Scotch Independent reported that Brown was a "vigorous expositor of the evils and atrocities of that system whose chains he has shaken off so triumphantly and forever. We may safely pronounce William Wells Brown a remarkable man, and a full refutation of the doctrine of the inferiority of the negro."

Brown continued to develop his career as a writer and orator while living in Europe. In 1853, he published his first novel, Clotel, or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States. Clotel, which followed the life of a mixed-raced slave working in the home of Thomas Jefferson. The novel is considered the first to be published by an African-American. Brown and his family were only able to return to the United States after the Richardson, a prominent British family, purchased his freedom.

Returning to the United States, Brown rejoined the lecture circuit and continued to develop his craft as a writer.

Brown became the first published African-American playwright with Experience; or, How to Give a Northern Man a Backbone (1865) and The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom in 1858.

In addition to writing fiction, Brown also became a historian, writing texts such as The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius and His Achievements, in 1863; The Negro in the American Rebellion, in 1867; and The Rising Son, 1873.

In 1880, Brown published his last memoir, My Southern Home and resided in Boston.


Brown died at the age of 70 in a town outside of Boston.