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William Wells Brown, Personifying the American Dream

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William Wells Brown. Wikipedia.org photo.

By Tamara Shiloh

The minstrel shows of the early 19th century are believed by some to be the roots of Black theatre. However, they were written, acted, and performed by whites for white audiences. The first known play by a Black American was James Brown’s “King Shotaway” (1823), but the first Black play published was William Wells Brown’s (ca. 1814–1884) “The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom.”

While “Escape” was published in 1858, it was not officially produced until 1971 at Emerson College. It was one of the earliest extant pieces of African American dramatic literature.

Brown, whose mother was a slave, was born on a plantation outside Lexington, Ky. He would become a Black antislavery lecturer, a groundbreaking novelist, playwright, and historian.

According to the New Bedford Historical Society (NBHS), he is “widely considered to have been the first African American to publish works in several major literary genres, and widely acclaimed for the effectiveness of many of his writings.”

Bought and sold several times before age 20, Brown spent his childhood and much of his young adult life as a slave in St. Louis, Mo. There he was hired out to work on the Missouri River which, at that time, served as a major thoroughfare for the slave trade. This location allowed him several chances to escape. It was New Year’s Day in 1834 that he slipped away from a steamboat and finally became successful.

Brown landed in Cleveland, Ohio, where he began educating himself and reading antislavery newspapers. He later worked as a steam boatsman on Lake Erie and conductor for the Underground Railroad. On arrival at Cleveland, he’d taken shelter with Mr. and Mrs. Wells Brown, a white Quaker family and later adopted their names.

By 1843, Brown had become a regular on the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society lecturing circuit. He was also deeply committed to speaking out on women’s rights and temperance laws (laws banning the sale of spirits in less than 15-gallon quantities). It was Brown’s speaking that led many historians and scholars to provide the trajectory for his later career as a writer. By 1845, he’d published “Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself.”

Brown personified the American dream. He’d become an internationally renowned antislavery activist and writer who resided in and traveled widely across the northern United States and the British Isles. He penned a series of remarkable books including the first Black novel, the first printed Black play, the first Black travelogue, and the first Black panorama displayed in Britain.

Focusing on his own historical works, Brown penned two histories of the Black race, a history on Blacks and whites in the South, and a rare military history of Blacks in the Civil War. He eventually settled in Boston, where he practiced medicine until his death from cancer in 1884.

Learn more about Brown’s compelling story through his classic American slave narrative: “The Narrative of William W. Brown a Fugitive Slave.”

The post William Wells Brown, Personifying the American Dream first appeared on Post News Group. This article originally appeared in Post News Group.

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