William Wells Brown was a former slave who went on to become, by most accounts, the first African-American novelist to publish a novel and the first African-American playwright to publish a play. This came after a dramatic escape from slavery and the assistance of a good Samaritan.
Brown was born into slavery around 1814. At 19, he was sold to a Missouri steamboat company owner and staged an escape when the ship carrying him docked in Ohio. In the dead of winter, Brown traveled on foot and came across a Quaker who gave him his full name and put him on the path of education.
Escaping to the north and settling in Boston, Brown became a notable abolitionist writer and speaker, but as a fugitive, he felt his freedom could be better realized in Europe as slavery was outlawed in England and France. With his two young daughters, Brown traveled across Europe drawing crowds among those who opposed the act of slavery. With the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 enacted, Brown opted to stay in Europe until his rich friends were able to purchase his freedom.
While in Europe, Brown penned and published the book Clotel or The President’s Daughter, a fictional account of two bi-racial daughters of President Thomas Jefferson, in 1853. Five years later, the play “The Escape” or “A Leap For Freedom” was published although it wasn’t produced into a full work until 1971 at Emerson College.
After returning to the United States in 1854, Brown continued to write and lecture, picking up an interest in homeopathic medicine along the way. He became a medical doctor and opened a practice. Brown passed in 1884 at the age of 70, according to most records.
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