Black History Month: Scholar's research on author William Wells Brown finds new truths about his life

Texas professor discovers one fact in particular that escaped slave didn't know about himself

Herald-Leader columnistFebruary 19, 2013 

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"I was born in Lexington, Ky."

That is the first sentence of the first chapter of the first manuscript published by William Wells Brown, the first and most prolific black writer published in the 19th century. And it appears to be wrong.

Rather than being born in Lexington — as Brown might have believed when he wrote the 1847 narrative of his life in and escape from slavery — he was born on a Montgomery County farm near Mount Sterling.

That is one of several discoveries Ezra Greenspan, an English professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas, has made as he has researched and written the first comprehensive biography of Brown.

Greenspan is now finishing the book, which he said W.W. Norton & Co. will publish in 2014. Also next year, The Library of America will publish the second volume of Brown's writings that Greenspan has edited. William Wells Brown: A Reader was published by The University of Georgia Press in 2008.

"He is one of the great lives in American history," Greenspan said of Brown. "He is being recognized now, and it's long overdue, as being the leading force in 19th-century African-American culture."

After escaping from slavery in 1834, Brown helped other fugitive slaves get to Canada. He taught himself to read and write, became a leading anti-slavery speaker and then launched into an impressive literary career.

Brown wrote the first published black novel, play, travelogue and song book. He wrote three major volumes of black history, including the first examining black service in the Civil War. He later traveled widely to advocate for temperance, education and social improvement of the black community.

Brown's most famous book was his novel, Clotel; or, the President's Daughter, which created a sensation when published in London in 1853. The title character is the daughter of a slave and President Thomas Jefferson. The book's inspiration was the rumors that had long swirled about Jefferson's now-proven relationship with his mixed-race slave, Sally Hemings, who bore several of his children.

Greenspan's research included visiting places across America and Britain where Brown lived and worked. He came to Lexington last fall looking for evidence of Brown's birth and owner, physician John Young. He found none.

Then, in an old copy of the Kentucky Gazette, he found a notice Young had placed telling of a smallpox epidemic in Mount Sterling. So he went to search Montgomery County court records "and Dr. John Young was all over the place."

Greenspan also found records about the man Brown identified in his 1847 narrative as his biological father, Young's cousin George W. Higgins, who married soon afterward and moved to Alabama.

Brown left Kentucky about age 3, when Young moved West to Missouri, settling on a large farm 60 miles west of St. Louis.

Greenspan found a lot of information about the white side of Brown's family, but his slave ancestry remains sketchy — both in where his mother's people came from and where they ended up. Brown's beloved sister was sold South as a teenager, likely as part of the sex trade. His mother also was sold South, after a 17-year-old Brown persuaded her to make an unsuccessful escape attempt with him.

"Brown certainly had a sense of himself as a Kentuckian, even though the connections were loose," Greenspan said.

He said his book would add a lot of information to what has been known about Brown and his work. But many aspects of Brown's tumultuous private life, which included two wives and several daughters, will remain a mystery. Brown died in 1884 in Chelsea, Mass.

"Even though Brown was the most prolific black writer of the century, there are no private letters that have survived of Brown and his own family," he said. "But the family was explosive."

For Brown to rise from slavery, educate himself and accomplish so much is truly remarkable, Greenspan said.

"He was a person of extraordinary intelligence and perception," he said. "Basically, it's a story of native qualities and astounding life experience."

Because next year will be the bicentennial of Brown's birth, Greenspan hopes states and cities where he lived will organize commemorations. He hopes to return to speak next year in Lexington, where last fall he happened upon the new William Wells Brown Elementary School in the East End.

"I was so impressed by the way they set up the community center and the school together," he said. "It's exactly in the mold of Brown's reform activities: education and community reform go hand-in-hand."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com.

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