William Wells Brown: Biography, Books & Quotes

Instructor: Margaret Stone

Margaret has taught both college and high school English and has a master's degree in English.

William Wells Brown was an escaped slave and self-educated writer and speaker. Brown was the first African American to publish a novel, and he was a well-known speaker in American anti-slavery societies.


William Wells Brown was born in 1814. Brown was born into slavery on a plantation in Kentucky. William Wells Brown's mother was a slave, and his father was a white man. Brown's father was likely a relative of the man who owned both Brown and his mother.

William Wells Brown was named Sandford, but he changed his name after he escaped from slavery in 1834 with the assistance of a Quaker named Wells Brown. William Wells Brown adopted the name of this man who had helped him escape the bonds of slavery.

He quickly found a job on a steamer on the Great Lakes and married Elizabeth Schooner, a free black woman with whom he eventually had two daughters. This job apparently suited Brown, for he worked nine years on Lake Erie, all the while secretly helping fugitive slaves escape to Canada all the while.

His devotion to the abolition of slavery became clear when Brown joined the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society, and his speeches led to work as a lecturer with other well-known societies aimed at abolishing slavery. In 1847, Brown's first book, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, was published. The publicity surrounding the book brought him unwanted attention, however, from bounty hunters seeking rewards for capturing fugitive slaves.

To avoid the possibility of being returned to his former owner, he traveled to Europe with his two daughters. His novel Clotel was published in 1853 in London. Eventually, Brown's exile was ended when a London slave reformer bought his freedom. Brown's emancipation from slavery allowed him to return to the United States.

While Brown was living in Europe, his first wife died. He remarried after his return to the United States. Brown died at the age of seventy in 1884.


William Wells Brown was a prolific writer. His first book, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, was published in 1847. This book is a memoir of Brown's life, and the episodic narrative reveals Brown's keen intelligence and sense of humor.

Brown was also the author of the Clotel; published in London in 1853, this work was the first novel published by an African American. Clotel deals with the hypocrisy of a country that prides itself on the ideal of freedom while allowing the institution of slavery to thrive on its shores.

Brown published many other works, including three histories of African Americans in the United States, memoirs, speeches, and even a travel book. William Wells Brown viewed his writing as a way to get Americans to understand and engage with the realities of slavery.

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