William Wells Brown gets his name


Image of author/historian/social activist William Wells Brown from his book, Three Years in Europe: Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met.
SOURCE: Wikipedia

William Wells Brown, as noted in Wikipedia, “was a prominent African-American abolitionist lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian in the United States. Born into slavery in Kentucky, he escaped to Ohio in 1834 at the age of 20. He settled in Boston, Massachusetts, where he worked for abolitionist causes and became a prolific writer. While working for abolition, Brown also supported causes including: temperance, women’s suffrage, pacifism, prison reform, and an anti-tobacco movement. His novel Clotel (1853), considered the first novel written by an African American, was published in London, England, where he resided at the time; it was later published in the United States.”

Brown wrote many books, including the autobiographical Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written By Himself. The website DocSouth summarizes the book here, saying in part:

Embarking on a career as a lecturing agent for the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society in 1843, Brown eventually moved to Boston in 1847, where he began his impressive literary career. In that same year, he wrote and published his autobiography, the Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. Written by Himself. With its four American and five British editions appearing before 1850, Brown’s Narrative, second in popularity only to Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, brought him international celebrity.

As William Wells Brown’s first published work and his most widely read autobiography, the 1847 Narrative occupies an important place within not only his oeuvre but also the broader African American literary tradition.

In Narrative, Wells says that after he escaped from bondage in Kentucky, he took the route to freedom through Ohio. Among his many concerns as a freeman, interestingly enough, was his name. As a boy, he had been ordered to change his name, from William to Sandford; he found this “one of the most cruel acts that could be committed upon my rights.”

But as a free man, he could reclaim his name, which he did; this is from Narrative:

My escape to a land of freedom now appeared certain, and the prospects of the future occupied a great part of my thoughts. What should be my occupation, was a subject of much anxiety to me; and the next thing what should be my name? I have before stated that my old master, Dr. Young, had no children of his own, but had with him a nephew, the son of his brother, Benjamin Young. When this boy was brought to Doctor Young, his name being William, the same as mine, my mother was ordered to change mine to something else.

This, at the time, I thought to be one of the most cruel acts that could be committed upon my rights; and I received several very severe whippings for telling people that my name was William, after orders were given to change it. Though young, I was old enough to place a high appreciation upon my name. It was decided, however, to call me “Sandford,” and this name I was known by, not only upon my master’s plantation, but up to the time that I made my escape. I was sold under the name of Sandford.

But as soon as the subject came to my mind, I resolved on adopting my old name of William, and let Sandford go by the board, for I always hated it. Not because there was anything peculiar in the name; but because it had been forced upon me. It is sometimes common at the south, for slaves to take the name of their masters. Some have a legitimate right to do so. But I always detested the idea of being called by the name of either of my masters. And as for my father, I would rather have adopted the name of “Friday,” and been known as the servant of some Robinson Crusoe, than to have taken his name. (Editor’s note: William Wells Brown’s father was a white man.)
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Tragic Mulatto: Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s The Price of Blood


The Price of Blood, by Thomas Satterwhite Noble (1835–1907); 1868; Oil on canvas
Image Source: Morris Museum of Art

This is how these men, born in the 19th century, remembered their fathers:

Frederick Douglass wrote, “My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me. My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.” [1]

William Wells Brown wrote “I was born in Lexington, Ky. The man who stole me as soon as I was born, recorded the births of all the infants which he claimed to be born his property, in a book which he kept for that purpose. My mother’s name was Elizabeth. She had seven children, viz.: Solomon, Leander, Benjamin, Joseph, Millford, Elizabeth, and myself. No two of us were children of the same father. My father’s name, as I learned from my mother, was George Higgins. He was a white man, a relative of my master, and connected with some of the first families in Kentucky.” [2]

• Henry Bibb wrote

I was born May 1815, of a slave mother, in Shelby County, Kentucky, and was claimed as the property of David White Esq. He came into possession of my mother long before I was born. I was brought up in the Counties of Shelby, Henry, Oldham, and Trimble. Or, more correctly speaking, in the above counties, I may safely say, I was flogged up; for where I should have received moral, mental, and religious instruction, I received stripes without number, the object of which was to degrade and keep me in subordination. I can truly say, that I drank deeply of the bitter cup of suffering and woe. I have been dragged down to the lowest depths of human degradation and wretchedness, by Slaveholders.

My mother was known by the name of Milldred Jackson. She is the mother of seven slaves only, all being sons, of whom I am the eldest. She was also so fortunate or unfortunate, as to have some of what is called the slaveholding blood flowing in her veins. I know not how much; but not enough to prevent her children though fathered by slaveholders, from being bought and sold in the slave markets of the South. It is almost impossible for slaves to give a correct account of their male parentage. All that I know about it is, that my mother informed me that my fathers name was James Bibb. He was doubtless one of the present Bibb family of Kentucky; but I have no personal knowledge of him at all, for he, died before my recollection. [3]

Henry Bibb’s father was Kentucky state senator James Bibb.

3 Abolitionists Douglass Brown Bibb
African American Abolitionists Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Henry Bibb
Image Source: From their Narratives; see book citations at the bottom of this post
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William Wells Brown’s Fugitive Slave Lament: “Where art thou, mother?”


“The author and his mother arrested and carried back into slavery.” From Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself., first edition published 1847, in London, England. The image shows the capture of Brown and his mother after their unsuccessful escape from bondage in 1833.
Image Source: from the Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself. The book is online at Docsouth.org and is available for all users.

LAMENT OF THE FUGITIVE SLAVE
by William Wells Brown, from the Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself.

I’ve wandered out beneath the moonlit heaven,
Lost mother! loved and dear,
To every beam a magic power seems given
To bring thy spirit near;
For though the breeze of freedom fans my brow,
My soul still turns to thee! oh, where art thou?

Where art thou, mother? I am weary thinking;
A heritage of pain and woe
Was thine, — beneath it art thou slowly sinking,
Or hast thou perished long ago?
And doth thy spirit ‘mid the quivering leaves above me,
Hover, dear mother, to guard and love me?

I murmur at my lot: in the white man’s dwelling
The mother there is found;
Or he may tell where spring-buds first are swelling
Above her lowly mound;
But thou, — lost mother, every trace of thee
In the vast sepulchre of Slavery!

Long years have fled, since sad, faint-hearted,
I stood on Freedom’s shore,
And knew, dear mother, from thee I was parted,
To meet thee never more;
And deemed the tyrant’s chain with thee were better
Than stranger hearts and limbs without a fetter.

Yet blessings on thy Roman-mother spirit;
Could I forget it, then,
The parting scene, and struggle not to inherit
A freeman’s birth-right once again?
O noble words! O holy love, which gave
Thee strength to utter them, a poor, heart-broken slave!

Be near me, mother, be thy spirit near me,
Wherever thou may’st be;
In hours like this bend near that I may hear thee,
And know that thou art free;
Summoned at length from bondage, toil and pain,
To God’s free world, a world without a chain!
*******************

“My child, we must soon part, to meet no more this side of the grave. You have ever said that you would not die a slave; that you would be a free man. Now try to get your liberty!” — William Wells Brown’s Narrative

William Wells Brown may never have forgiven himself. All he could was lament.

Wells, enslaved in Missouri in 1833, had just lost his sister to the slave trade. Perhaps angered by this loss, he convinced his mother to join him in fleeing north to “liberty.” An escape party of two would make things more difficult than if he had fled alone, but he did not want to leave his mother behind. But Brown and his mother were captured; and as a consequence, she too was “sold down the river.” That was when Brown was 19 or 20; he lived to be 70, and never saw his mother again. Continue reading