Slave Narratives

Who was William Wells Brown and why was he important?

In 1853 William Wells Brown (1814–1884) became the first black novelist. His novel, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, was published in England. The son of a slave mother and plantation owner, Brown was born near Lexington, Kentucky. In 1816 his master, John Young, moved his family and his slaves to a farm in the Missouri Territory and later to St. Louis. While in Missouri, Brown worked as Young’s office boy and learned to prepare medicine and administer to slaves who were ill. After being sold several times and several escape attempts, Brown escaped successfully on January 1, 1834. He became active in the abolitionist movement, and in 1843 he became an agent of abolitionist societies. Brown spent five years in Europe championing emancipation and wrote the first book of travel, Three Years in Europe, in 1852, and the first dramatic work by an American black, Experience; or How to Give a Northern Man a Backbone, in 1856. His second play, Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom, also written in 1856, was the first play published by an American black. Brown wrote more than a dozen books and pamphlets. He was also a physician and maintained a practice until his death; his interest also turned to writing the history of black achievement.

The first black American novelist was William Wells Brown, who published Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States in 1853.


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