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Josephine Brown
Biography of an American Bondman, by His Daughter
Boston: R. F. Wallcut, 1856, c1855.


William Wells Brown, the subject of Biography of an American Bondman, by His Daughter, was born in 1814 near Lexington, Kentucky. His mother, Elizabeth, was enslaved, and his father, George Higgins, was the half-brother of Brown's master, Dr. John Young. In 1834, Brown escaped slavery and settled in Cleveland, Ohio. He married Elizabeth Schooner later that year, and the couple eventually had two daughters, Clarissa and Josephine. Brown became increasingly involved in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad, and moved his family to Buffalo, New York, in 1836. In the mid-1840s, Brown and his wife separated, and he retained custody of his daughters, taking them with him to Boston. Brown is best known for his work as an abolitionist and writer, and the Narrative of William Wells Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself (1847) became so popular that it went through four editions in two years, selling 10,000 copies. In 1849, Brown was named as a delegate to the International Peace Congress in Paris, and he stayed in Europe as an antislavery lecturer until 1854. While abroad, he published Three Years in Europe; or, Places I Have Seen and People I Have Met (1853), and Clotel; or the President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853), widely considered the first novel published by an African American. After Brown returned to the United States, he continued his social activism and writing, publishing plays, travel narratives, autobiographies, and historical works. In 1860, Brown married Anna Elizabeth Gray, with whom he had one daughter, Clotelle, in 1862. He died in Boston in 1884.

Josephine Brown was born in 1839 in Buffalo, New York. After their parents separated in 1847, Josephine and her sister attended a boarding school in New Bedford, Massachusetts, while their father traveled on the abolitionist lecture circuit. During the summer of 1851, Brown brought his daughters to join him in London and then enrolled them in a seminary in Calais, France; however, they eventually returned to London to complete their schooling. Occasionally, Josephine joined her father on his lecture tours, during which she transcribed his correspondence. In December 1853, Josephine passed a qualifying examination to become a schoolteacher and accepted a position as mistress of the East Plumstead School in Woolwich, England. She returned to the United States in 1855 to visit Brown and complete her biography. After its publication, Josephine traveled with her father and for a short time did some antislavery lecturing, but she resumed her teaching career in England later that year. She likely remained there for the rest of her life.

In the preface to Biography of an American Bondman, Josephine explains that she began her narrative while at school in France. Brown's 1847 autobiography had gone out of print by 1855, prompting Josephine to give more background on her father in her text, to "supply its place; and therefore have added a few more chapters to those written while abroad" (p. 4). Josephine Brown's goal is not necessarily to provide new information about her father's life but to preserve his legacy, so the biography frequently incorporates passages and quotations from his published autobiographical writings. However, scholar William L. Andrews notes that Josephine Brown does offer new details about some biographical information, including a birthdate of 15 March 1815 (which is not corroborated by outside scholars) and the fact that her father was born on a farm outside of Lexington, Kentucky, instead of within the city itself (p. xxxvii).

Josephine Brown's biography surveys her father's life from childhood in slavery on the Young plantation to his escape, his life in New York, and his travels in Great Britain. She notes that while enslaved, her father was usually employed as an assistant in his master's medical practice and personal household, and thereby shielded from harsh field labor. However, Brown's status does not protect him from the harsh realities of slavery: his mother works with other slaves in the plantation fields, and he is not only separated from "a mother's care and softening influence," but he is fully aware of cruelties administered by the overseer upon the fieldworkers (p. 7). Brown is traumatized at age ten "at hearing the cries and screams of his mother, and seeing the driver flogging her with his negro-whip" while knowing he is helpless to come to her aid (p. 7). Josephine Brown thus asserts that her father was not completely protected from mistreatment despite his placement in the household, and Andrews notes that her biography is the first to describe the abuse Brown endured because the mistress resents his light skin, a visible reminder of "her husband's 'negro relations'" (p. 10). Josephine Brown also frankly discusses the dual dilemma of the mixed-race slave, noting that "he is abused by both owner and fellow-slaves. The owner flogs him to keep him 'in his place,' and the slaves hate him on account of his being whiter than themselves" (p. 10).

Although Dr. Young refuses to sell Brown because of his sentimental attachment to his nephew, Brown is hired out to fill varying service positions for an inn-keeper, several steamboat captains, and even a slave-trader. Brown's experiences away from Young's plantation expose him to further horrors of slavery as well as the possibilities of freedom. Some of these temporary masters physically abuse Brown, who twice runs away to appeal to Dr. Young for protection; Brown, however, is only beaten and returned to his workplace. One man, Mr. Freeland, would tie him up "in the smoke-house, after whipping him severely, and [cause] him to be smoked with tobacco, the boy sneezing, coughing and weeping during this fiendish act" (p. 14). While working on a steamboat running between St. Louis and Galena, Illinois, Brown hears a Fourth of July speech by Senator Thomas Hart Benton, who quotes from the Declaration of Independence. The words "indelibly impressed on the heart of this uneducated boy. In his sleep, he dreamed of freedom; when awake, his thoughts were about liberty, and how he could secure it" (p. 16). Working on the boats also allows Brown to observe "others going from place to place . . . using the liberty that God endowed every human being with" (p. 15). However, these steamboats also transport slave traders with large groups of enslaved African Americans to Louisiana and Mississippi. Brown is forced to help prepare slaves for market by disguising their ages through cosmetic changes such as plucking or dying gray hairs, and he must help drive them to each destination. His daughter wryly observes of this period, "In no situation could he have been placed to give him an opportunity of witnessing more scenes of cruelty and outrage than this" (p. 25-26).

Josephine Brown's Biography of an American Bondsman faithfully follows the trajectory of her father's life as previously explored in his own narratives. She distills and summarizes the major revelatory moments of his autobiography while she also incorporates new anecdotal information and offers her own perspective on Brown's life. Whereas her biography draws frequently from previously published autobiographical accounts, the narrative style and comic flourishes add interest and value to the text. Andrews observes that her biography's primary contribution to the "lore of William Wells Brown" may be the insight it offers into the rhetorical tactics used by both father and daughter in "their war of words against slavery" (p. xxxix).

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L., ed., Introduction to Two Biographies by African-American Women, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991; Blackett, R. J. M., "Brown, William Wells," in American National Biography Online, 9 January 2008,; Easton, Alice Knox, "Brown, William Wells," in Oxford African American Studies Center 9 January 2008,

Jenn Williamson

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