Author William Wells Brown, a former slave, comes out of obscurity in new biography

In the introduction to the story of William Wells Brown, a slave turned celebrity author, his biographer, Ezra Greenspan, includes these sentences of special interest to Missourians:

“To this day, the historical signage surrounding the municipal park in (Brown’s) boyhood home in Marthasville, Missouri, proudly identifies his master as the pioneer founder of the town, but makes no mention of Brown. Ironically, the signs are located on the premises of the very farm on which he grew up.

“The irony is greater yet — Brown was the leading African American historian of his era and devoted himself in one pioneering book after another to recording his people’s presence in North America in common with people of European origin.

“As a student of the public record, whether engraved on public memorials or recorded in state archives, he so frequently encountered the pattern of deliberate or casual omission that he developed a term for it — colonization.”

One might ask, “Why have I never heard of William Wells Brown, especially given his Missouri upbringing? And what did he accomplish in his life, 1814 to 1884, that would warrant a roughly 600-page biography?”

Greenspan is an English professor at Southern Methodist University who became fascinated with the quantity as well as the quality of Brown’s literary output during the 19th century.

Brown enjoyed a large following among African-Americans and Caucasians, especially those concerned about the U.S. brand of slavery and all other matters of racial discrimination that have divided the nation since its founding.

Fearless verbally and on paper, Brown in his time equaled Frederick Douglass as a well-known person of color. Today, Douglass remains a major symbol of his time and cause, Brown not. Greenspan cannot completely solve that puzzle. He can, however, help restore Brown to a rightful place in American history.

Despite the lack of public records documenting the life of a “mere slave,” Greenspan has pieced together a remarkably complete chronology. Born in Kentucky, Brown was brought at age 3 to Marthasville in Warren County west of St. Louis. Described are the years of enslavement, the escape to free territory in Ohio at age 19 and the effort to educate himself after two decades of illiteracy.

He moved to England to become a celebrity as an anti-slavery crusader and then returned to the United States in 1854 as a man of letters.

Brown became “free” upon his return to the United States only because supporters in England purchased that freedom. In his own mind, however, Brown had become free years earlier.

Greenspan credits Brown with the authorship of the first African-American travelogue (“Three Years in Europe,” published in 1852) and the first novel by an African-American (“Clotel,” 1853).

Later, Brown published a groundbreaking history of African-Americans (“The Black Man,” 1863) and a more focused history about African-Americans fighting in the Civil War (“The Negro in the American Rebellion,” 1867).

Caucasians, especially those in the defeated Southern states, tended to despise African-Americans, especially those who had educated themselves and began speaking out. Yet Brown toured the South soon after the war, “repeatedly campaigning for black uplift, temperance, and civil rights,” as Greenspan documents.

Brown published his final book in 1880, using the title “My Southern Home.” Greenspan calls it a “savagely perceptive, rollicking account of the South looking both backward and forward from a Jim Crow-era vantage point.”

When Brown died, he received plenty of obituary notices. One in a St. Louis newspaper, Greenspan notes, trumpeted “an Emancipator’s Death.”

That article failed to address Brown’s years as a slave in Missouri. Yet the searing years of slavery could never be exorcised from Brown’s own mind.

Steve Weinberg is a biographer in Columbia, Mo. He currently is writing the life of Garry Trudeau.

William Wells Brown: An African American Life, by Ezra Greenspan (448 pages; W.W. Norton, $35)