African American Author

The first African American author to publish a novel was William Wells Brown, who lived from 1815 to 1884.  The novel, Clotel: Or, the President’s Daughter, is a fictional account of three generations of women during the slavery era and is based upon scandalous rumors that President Thomas Jefferson had fathered a child with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves.

The African American author himself was born near Lexington, Kentucky, to a black mother, Elizabeth, who was owned by a Dr. Young.  Brown’s white father was George Higgins, a plantation owner and relative of Dr. Young’s.  The ownership of Brown passed through several hands until January 1, 1834, when he escaped slavery by slipping away from a boat docked in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Adopting the name of a Quaker friend, Brown spent nine years working on a steamship on Lake Erie, where he was an invaluable conductor in the Underground Railroad.  He used his position to smuggle escaping slaves across the US border to freedom in Canada.

Later, he became a highly respected advocate of the American Anti-Slavery Society, touring the US and Europe where he lectured on the slavery issues and the temperance movement.

Once settled in Boston, the African American author turned his own life’s adventures into an autobiography, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, which he published in 1947.  His time lecturing in Europe was the inspiration for his second book, a travel memoir entitled Three Years in Europe, published in 1852.

His next work, Clotel, was published in England in December 1853, perhaps because the nature of the work was much too risky to publish in America at the time.  Because the 320-page novel was published abroad, some purists dispute its claim to being the first published African American novel.  In spite of the controversy, the novel has been chosen to be a part of the prestigious Project Gutenberg and is available today in both paperback and hardcover editions.

After a prolific career writing travel, fiction, and drama, this very important African American author and reformer died a free man in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on November 6, 1884, exactly 70 years to the day that he was born into slavery.

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