Western New York was a very significant area for fugitive slaves on their way to Canada and freedom. There were many people who helped them escape. William Wells Brown was one of the conductors on the Underground Railroad.
His book, “The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave,” was published in 1847. In the book, he wrote about his experiences as a slave during the first 20 years of his life in St. Louis and the surrounding areas. He witnessed the horrors of enslavement and stated that it was “far worse than death itself.” Brown’s narrative quickly became a best seller. His memoir, along with the writings of Frederick Douglass, contributed to the growing anti-slavery movement in the Northern states.
Brown was born in Lexington, Ky., in 1814. He was the son of a slave woman and a slaveholder. It was rumored that his grandfather was Daniel Boone. Brown was sold to a sea captain. At about the age of 19, he escaped to Ohio, where he settled and worked hard to educate himself. He was aided by a Quaker named Wells Brown, so he adopted the name and made his way to Cleveland to work on steamers. While working on steamers between Cleveland and other ports of the Great Lakes, Brown aided 60 fugitives as they made their way to Canada.
In 1835, he married Elizabeth Schooner and began a family. Brown later moved to Buffalo. He chose Buffalo because the employment opportunities were better for blacks. However, before he left Cleveland he worked for the rights of women and spoke out for prison reform.
After moving to Buffalo in 1836, he became very active in the anti-slavery movement and joined William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist group. He lectured for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society. In the city directory for Buffalo, Brown was listed as a lecturer for the years 1841, 1842 and 1844. He lived in a house at the current site of First Shiloh Baptist Church, located now at 15 Pine St. The marker in front of the church notes that Brown once resided at this spot. At one time he also lived on North Division Street. Both of his homes were stations on the Underground Railroad. He also provided shelter for anti-slavery agents and lecturers.
“The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave” recounts slave life vividly. Brown recalled one awful scene in his book of the whipping of his mother by a slave master: “The overseer commenced to whip her. She pleaded for mercy. I could hear every crack of the whip, and every groan and cry of my poor mother. The cold chills ran over me and I wept aloud.”
This is a difficult book to read because it exposes the brutality of enslavement. Brown wrote more than a dozen books and pamphlets. His book, “The Rising Son,” provided a general history of African-Americans and addressed beatings and other deplorable acts attributed to the institution of slavery.
Brown wrote the first novel produced by a black person in the United States. It was called “Clotel; or The President’s Daughter.” It was based on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave woman, Sally Hemings. It was so controversial that the 1853 version was published in London but not in the United States. It was not published in this country until 1969. His work also included a play and a travelogue, all firsts for African-American authors.
The story of William Wells Brown should be included in the history books. He contributed greatly to the freedom of slaves.
Brown died on Nov. 6, 1884. He left a great legacy as an abolitionist and author. The history of the Underground Railroad and the men and women who helped to guide fugitives to freedom has not been fully recognized. There is a gold mine of history when it comes to the Underground Railroad in Buffalo and Western New York.
Eva M. Doyle is a columnist for the Buffalo Criterion newspaper, where this article originally appeared. It is the second of four parts.