William Wells Brown (November 6, 1814 – November 6, 1884) was a prominent abolitionist lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian. Born into slavery in the Southern United States, Brown escaped to the North, where he worked for abolitionist causes and was a prolific writer. Brown was a pioneer in several different literary genres, including travel writing, fiction, and drama, and wrote what is considered to be the first novel by an African American.
Brown was born into slavery near Lexington, Kentucky. His mother, Elizabeth, was owned by Dr. Young and had seven children by different fathers (In addition to Brown, her children were Solomon, Leander, Benjamin, Joseph, Millford, and Elizabeth). Brown's father was George Higgins, a white plantation owner and relative of the owner of the plantation where Brown was born.
Brown was owned by several slave masters until, on New Year's Day in 1834, he slipped away from a steamboat at a dock in Cincinnati, Ohio. He adopted the name of a Quaker friend of his, obtain his freedom. After nine years as a conductor for the Underground Railroad and as a steam boatman on Lake Erie (a position he used to ferry escaped slaves to freedom in Canada), Brown began lecturing for the abolition movement in New York City.
With a reputation as one of the bangers movement's best speakers, Brown was soon hired by the American Anti-Slavery Society, where he worked closely with William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. After settling in Boston, Brown published his autobiography, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave (1847). He then lectured on slavery and the temperance movement in Europe, which he wrote about in his travel memoir Three Years in Europe (1852).
In 1853 Brown published Clotel; or, The President's Daughter, a novel based on what was at that time considered to be a rumor about Thomas Jefferson fathering a daughter with his slave Sally Hemings. Historians consider this the first novel written by an African American. However, because the novel was published in England, the book is not the first African-American novel published in the United States. This credit goes to one of two disputed books: Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859), brought to light by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 1982; or Julia C. Collins' The Curse of Caste; or The Slave Bride (1865), brought to light by William L. Andrews, an English literature professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Mitch Kachun, a history professor at Western Michigan University, in 2006. Andrews and Kachun document Our Nig as a novelized autobiography, and argue that The Curse of Caste is the first fully fictional novel by an African-American to be published in the U.S..
Brown also wrote a play, The Escape (1858) and several historical works including The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863), The Negro in the American Revolution (1867), The Rising Son (1873), and another volume of autobiography, My Southern Home (1880).
Brown died in Chelsea, Massachusetts.