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Vibrant Lives. Vibrant Stories.

William Wells Brown, 1814- 1884

This biography was originally released on April 26, 2021 as a part of our on going series titled: Vibrant Lives. Vibrant Stories.
Written by the Staff of The Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor Commission

William Wells Born was born on November 6, 1814 on a plantation near Lexington, KY. His mother was a slave and his father was white man who was related to the plantation owner. Brown was sold several times during his youth and  hired out by his owners to work on the Missouri River. He attempted to escape multiple times, eventually succeeding in 1834. After escaping he moved to Buffalo, NY. Here he worked as a steam boatsman on Lake Erie while moonlighting as a conductor on the Underground Railroad.

Two years after arriving in Buffalo, Brown was a part of what he later described as “one of the most fearful fights for human freedom that I ever witnessed.” The story involves the fight for freedom against a slave catcher by the name of Bacon Tate who, according to Brown, was “as unfeeling and as devoid of principle as a man could possibly be.” 

The first fugitive slave act of 1793 allowed for the seizure and return of freedom seekers even if they had made it into a different state or federal territory. Under this act, deplorable men like Tate could find occupation in kidnapping and brutality. Tate was known as one of the most successful slave catchers and set about to capture Mr. and Mrs. Stanford who had made a home for themselves and their six week old baby in St. Catherines, Ontario. Tate sent an African American woman who was employed as a servant in a hotel to act as a spy on the family. Pretending to be a boarder, the woman learned their patterns and reported this back to Tate so that he could plan their capture.


Upon the families kidnapping, they were smuggled against their will via the Ferry from Canada to the Black Rock in the US. A neighbor of Stanford's alerted friends and family of the capture and the community quickly sent word to the African American community in Buffalo. Upon learning of the unfolding events, a group of men quickly sped after the smuggler’s carriage and were able to stop and rescue the family, who were badly bruised and bloodied, in the village of Hamburg, NY. 

After returning to Buffalo, the freedom fighters were confronted by Bacon Tate and the Sheriff who were ready to arrest anyone who stood in their way of returning the Stanford family to their former owners. A group of 40-50 African Americans, as well as several white friends, took up a battle against Tate’s group. A white lawyer, who Brown describes as “small,” encouraged the fight by telling the freedom fighters what their legal rights were and promising the Sheriff had  no warrants to arrest them. In the end, the family was able to make it to the Ferry at Black Rock where they made a safe return to Canada. 

The story is a remarkable account of Buffalo’s long dedication to freedom. Read the full account in Chapter XII of William Wells Brown Book. 

1843 began lecturing and advocating for the end of slavery to the WNY Anti-Slavery Society and was also active in the women’s rights and temperance movements. In 1847 wrote his memoir “Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave,” from which the above story is taken. At this time he was living and working in Massachusetts, where he was employed by the local Anti-Slavey Society as a lecture agent. 

While his career as a writer and a lecturer was excelling, his personal life was less than perfect. Brown went through a difficult divorce and made the decisions to leave his two daughters in the care of a friend and fellow-abolitionist Nathan Johnson. Shortly thereafter  Brown began a lecture tour in England. He decided to remain abroad after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which made it dangerous for him to return.  

1854 friends raised money to purchase his freedom and allowed Brown to return to the United States. Brown spent the later years of his life as a practicing physician. He continued to write until his death in 1884.

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Thank you to our sources at BackPast, New Bedford Historical Society, and Documenting the American South by UNC

Read more William Wells Brown's work for yourself here

Map courtesy of Buffalo Architecture & History.

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