William Wells Brown may be the most famous 19th century African American writer you've never heard of

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Carol Hills: I’m Carol Hills with The World. For the next few minutes, we’re going to delve into a little history. We’ll start off by going back about 160 years, when the book “Clotel” was published. It was the first novel ever published by an African American writer. His name was William Wells Brown, and he was one of the most prominent African Americans of his time. But most of us, including me, don’t really know much about him. Fred Wasser fills us in.

 

Fred Wasser: I didn’t know about William Wells Brown either, until I read Ezra Greenspan’s new biography. How could someone like Brown be so accomplished, yet so forgotten?

 

Ezra Greenspan: He was erased, to a very large extent, from the public record.

 

Wasser: Unfortunately, says Greenspan, not all that unusual.

 

Greenspan: It was nothing personal or particular. He was erased the way virtually all African Americans were -- their presence, their culture. He really came back into existence only with the civil rights movement.

 

Wasser: Brown was born a slave in Kentucky, around 1814. At the age of 19, he escaped to the north, settling in Boston. Over the next several years, he rapidly rose to prominence as an anti-slavery speaker and the author of a powerful slave narrator. As a black man, a fugitive slave, he was freer in the north, but not free.

 

Greenspan: What we mean by “freedom,” really is a relative term. Brown would say repeatedly if one wanted to be absolutely free, “one needed to go to England.”

 

Wasser: And he did, like his abolitionist colleague, Frederick Douglas, before him.

 

Greenspan: Slavery had been abolished in England and France, they could have a wider scope for their actions and their thoughts than they could presumably have in the United States.

 

Wasser: Brown left for Europe, intending to stay only a few months. With London as his home base, he traveled extensively and freely in England, Ireland, Scotland and France. He spoke before large, receptive crowds; he developed close friendships with blacks and whites. He wrote a book about his European adventures and he wrote his novel, “Clotel,” about a mixed-race daughter of an American president. Even in the 1800s, rumors were floating around about Thomas Jefferson. Creatively and in every way, Brown was thriving.

 

Greenspan: If you run forward 50, 60, 70, 80 years, what Brown and Douglas were doing in the 1840s and 50s was what the next generations of black Americans would do. We think of Josephine Baker finding her feet on stage in Paris, we think of James Baldwin living much of his mature life feeling free for the first time. But there actually was a long history that went back to the middle of the 19th century. Brown, in some ways, was a pioneer.

 

Wasser: A pioneer, but he couldn’t go home. Back in America, Congress had passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. That meant escaped slaves could be hunted down and captured, even in the north. He stayed 4 more years until a quaker family in England, the Richardsons, raised the money to buy his freedom. They’d done the same thing for Frederick Douglas a few years earlier.

 

Greenspan: He was a free man. And he did not wait. As soon as the freedom papers arrived in London, Brown was on one of the first steam ships out of Liverpool and right back into his life in the Boston area, but on a fundamentally different basis.

 

Wasser: As good as life was in Europe for Brown, the anti-slavery battle was raging in America. That’s where he needed to be. After emancipation, William Wells Brown continued his fight against injustice through his writing and public speaking, and he reinvented himself yet again, becoming a medical doctor. For The World, I’m Fred Wasser.