Playwright, lecturer, and author Williams Wells Brown (pictured) is recognized for two historic feats in the literary world: He was the first African American to publish a novel in 1853, although “Our Nig” author Harriet Wilson was the first to do so in North America. Wells Brown’s other achievement came when he became the first published African-American playwright with his play, “The Escape: Or, a Leap for Freedom,” which was released on this day in 1858.
Wells Brown was born in to slavery in Lexington, Ky., in 1814. In an odd twist of fate, Wells Brown’s White father was the cousin of his mother’s owner, who promised not to sell him.
The promise was broken, and Wells Brown was sold several times before the age of 20.
After an earlier attempt to escape from Louisiana, Wells Brown finally slipped away from his captors in 1834, after leaving a steamboat docked in Cincinnati.
Since Ohio was a free state, Wells Brown had some protection.
With the help of a Quaker (from which he took the Wells Brown name), the newly freed steamboat worker would leave his old life behind. Rising swiftly in society, Wells Brown moved to Buffalo, N.Y., working on steamboats while secretly freeing slaves. He would join the abolitionist movement in Buffalo as well as several other groups.
As a lecturer and powerful anti-slavery speaker, Wells Brown became known in the movement. Already a well-known writer from his 1947 memoir “Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself,” Frederick Douglass was his closest contemporary and reportedly a rival. Moving to Britain in 1849, Wells Brown published the novel “Clotel” or “The President’s Daughter,” which made him the first African American to do so.
His return to the States came after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was lifted; Wells Brown rightfully feared being recaptured as a high-profile speaker. Writing two plays, the later “The Escape: Or, a Leap for Freedom” (pictured at right) was published. Wells Brown was said to use the play as a talking point at abolitionist meetings.
The play was somewhat autobiographical, with Wells Brown focusing on the rampant sexual abuse and violation of Black slaves by White owners.
Wells Brown released several other works, and even backed away from his former nonviolent stances within the abolitionist movement. With his many writings, lectures, and visibility, Wells Brown became one of the most prolific writers of the 19th century.
After settling for many years in the Boston area, Wells Brown would pass away at age 70 on his birthday in 1844.
William Wells Brown may not have the name recognition that some of his peers enjoyed, but his contribution to the arts and the anti-slavery movement are cemented firmly in his words and work.