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Biographer shares William Wells Brown’s
story with students at namesake school

The biography 'William Wells Brown: An American Life' is due out in early October. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

The biography ‘William Wells Brown: An American Life’ is due out in early October. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)


By Tammy L. Lane
Special to Kyforward

As Ezra Greenspan described William Wells Brown to fourth- and fifth-graders, he realized they already knew a good bit about the historical figure for whom their Lexington elementary school is named. And while Brown doesn’t have any living descendants, these students could stand as his legacy. “What he has left is his books,” Greenspan said, “and this school, in a manner of speaking, is his heritage – you kids.”

Greenspan, an English professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas, has written a comprehensive biography called “William Wells Brown: An American Life,” which is due out in early October. He also spoke at Lexington Traditional Magnet School, the STEAM Academy and elsewhere during this week’s stint in Fayette County.

“Brown was the most important black historian of his era, and his books are all now back in print,” Greenspan said. “I hope the biography tells his story well and reaches a broad-reading public. Lexington is the obvious place to begin the (book) tour.”

WWB Principal Jay Jones welcomed Greenspan’s visit.

“They’re meeting a real-life author, with that little touch of history in there,” he said. “The kids can get to know somebody with a local connection.”

Ezra Greenspan is an English professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

Ezra Greenspan is an English professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

The connection is that Brown (1814-1884) – an escaped slave who went on to become a renowned writer – was born in Mount Sterling in Montgomery County. William Wells Brown Elementary is the only building named for him, and the school’s interior features several colorful murals depicting the man and his accomplishments. “Brown was one of the greatest writers in the 19th century, and that’s why I wanted to tell his story,” Greenspan told the youngsters during the afternoon assembly.

He opened by referencing the familiar murals, including one just outside the gym, and led into a brief account of Brown’s youth, ambition and success. “That’s the whole idea – to make the life of a Kentucky kid relatable and give these kids a sense of what it was like growing up the way he did and what he did with his life,” Greenspan said.

“One of the amazing things about Brown was he was probably illiterate until he escaped from slavery at the age of 19. He never went to school a single day in his life, but he grew up with a passion for learning,” Greenspan said, noting that Brown taught himself to read and write after fleeing his master’s steamboat in Cincinnati. “We can all learn some pretty good lessons from his life. He was very smart and very motivated. … If you want to do something really badly, you do it.”

As Greenspan fielded questions from the audience, one youngster asked why Brown’s white owners objected to his being literate.

“Masters didn’t want slaves to learn about the world,” Greenspan explained. “If he could read and write, he could think for himself. And if he thought for himself, he’d want to be free.”


Brown went on to write the earliest African-American works in myriad genres including travelogue, novel, printed play, and history. A popular figure on antislavery circuits, he also practiced medicine, ran for office, and promoted temperance and civil rights. “He was self-trained in everything, no formal education, self-taught in everything,” Greenspan said admiringly. “People would come to hear him speak, and his books were well-known.”

The students also asked why Brown didn’t help his family escape from slavery, too (his mother and sister were “sold down the river” after a failed attempt and his brothers were scattered), and how people today could know what really happened back then (through newspaper accounts, early photography and Brown’s own writings).

While doing research for the biography about four years ago, Greenspan and his wife happened to stop by the school during a neighborhood association meeting. Through staff connections, they met social worker and community activist Billie Mallory, who helped coordinate this latest visit. WWB, LTMS and STEAM each received an advance copy of his new book.

“It’s very extensive, and I spent a whole weekend reading it,” Mallory said. “It will help people take some pride in the deep history that exists here. That whole era is kind of lost to us. William Wells Brown really didn’t spend that much time in Lexington, but his childhood was spent in Kentucky. It’s important that we reclaim our history – proud of it or not.”

WWB school has a mural depicting (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

The school has several murals depicting Brown’s accomplishments. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)


Tammy L. Lane is communications specialist and website editor for Fayette County Public Schools.

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