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William Wells Brown: First African-American Novelist and Playwright

In 1847, while speaking to members of the Female Anti-Slavery Society of Salem, Ma., abolitionist William Wells Brown said, "Were I about to tell you the evils of Slavery, to represent to you the Slave in his lowest degradation, I should wish to take you, one at a time, and whisper it to you. Slavery has never been represented; Slavery never can be represented."

Throughout his career as an abolitionist, Brown used his talent as an orator and writer to expose the immorality of enslavement.

Brown was born on a plantation in Kentucky around 1814. His mother was a slave and his father was a white planter named George Higgins. Most of Brown"s early life was spent in St. Louis. However, Brown escaped from slavery in 1834 when he left his owner"s docked steamboat in Cincinnati.

Brown took the last name of a white Quaker family, Wells Brown, to show gratitude for the help they offered him as a runaway slave. Settling in Cleveland, Brown married Elizabeth Schooner, a free African-American woman and the couple had two daughters.

In 1836, Brown moved his family to Buffalo where he found work on Lake Erie as a steamboat man. It was during this time that Brown became a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Brown and his family assisted runaway slaves by transporting them to Detroit, various parts of upstate New York and Canada.

Brown also became involved in the abolition movement.

By 1843, Brown was working with the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society and speaking to groups about his life as a slave. Brown also joined the Negro Convention Movement. However, he remained a strong believer in moral suasion philosophy as the best way to fight against enslavement.

In 1847, Brown published Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself.

As a result of the narrative"s success, Brown began touring throughout the North and Europe.  

However, with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, Brown was forced to spend the next five years living in England and lecturing throughout Europe.

While living abroad, Brown

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