Features

Tale of Brown slave’s son retold

By
Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010

When Moses Brown found out that his wife had been feeding spoiled soup to the family’s slaves, he chastised her and told the workers they could always come to him if they were being mistreated. This story, along with many others about life in Providence in the 1880s, is recounted in “The Life of William J. Brown of Providence, R.I.” The book is the autobiography of William J. Brown — a free black man who was the son of a Brown family slave. Brown’s book was recently republished as a result of the efforts of Ray Rickman, a rare books dealer and the “self-appointed historian of College Hill.”

“I believe it is the finest narrative written by a free person of color in the 19th century,” Rickman said. Brown, who was able to write his story because he was one of the few blacks who were educated at the time, “talks about everyone. Seldom do black narratives do that.”

Rickman said while many of the writers of black narratives focus on their own communities, Brown’s work covers many topics including the presidential elections, the business community and the Brown family.

“He talks about every major incident,” Rickman said. “It’s incredible stuff.”

Brown writes in the first chapter of his book, “Grandfather Brown was born in Africa,” and was the slave of “Joseph, John, Nicholas and Moses Brown.” The brothers held their slaves together, with each one selecting specific slaves for housework, while the rest did outdoor labor.

Brown’s father, Noah, was eventually freed by Moses Brown, and William lived as a free man, though still worked for the Brown family.

Rickman came across the narrative 25 years ago and realized how special it was. His goal was to publicize Brown’s work to the point where it would be used in high school and college classrooms throughout Rhode Island.

Rickman received a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities to undertake a year-long project publicizing Brown’s narrative and increasing awareness of the life of African Americans in Providence during the 19th century.

“You have a nation with 20 million women who have read ‘Little Women,’ ”  Rickman said. He said he hoped Brown’s book could achieve the same amount of recognition.
Rickman’s plan to increase awareness of Brown’s story includes guided tours of Providence, lectures and the use of social networking sites, he said.

SueEllen Kroll, grants director at the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, said the publicity is timely.

“The mentality has changed,” she said. “People are really interested in hearing this history because it wasn’t really taught in schools.”

There used to be a “hesitance” to talk about slavery, Kroll said, but she believes people are now more open to learning about that history.

Kroll said she appreciates the work of the University’s Committee on Slavery and Justice, which was formed by President Ruth Simmons in 2003 to examine the University’s historical connections to slavery.

The University “demonstrated a good deal of forward thinking and forward momentum and leadership,” Kroll said. “The rest of the community is saying we want to embrace and understand this history.”

Professor of History Evelyn Hu-DeHart, a member of the committee, said she did not read the book, but is always interested in first-person narratives.

A narrative “tells you a whole lot more than just one story,” she said. “This is hardly the first one ever discovered. By the same token, every story is unique. The more there are, the better it is for all of us because it will deepen and enrich our understanding.”

Brown’s story is important because history is written by the rich and powerful, Hu-DeHart said. “The weakest, the poorest, the victims of discrimination do not have a voice.”

The same sentiment was echoed by Rickman. “American history, until very recently, is the history of great white men,” he said. “The rest of us don’t exist or are minor characters.”
Brown’s book is of the utmost importance for Rickman, “because in America we act like slavery didn’t happen or it wasn’t so bad.” Rickman said the University’s role in slavery is undeniable when reading firsthand accounts such as Brown’s narrative.

“There you see the effects of slavery on one family for 140 years. It is not ephemeral,” he said.

Hu-DeHart said it is important to pay attention to Brown’s particular voice. “We have to remember that slavery is about people. And it is not just ‘an institution.’ It is not a system. This is the voice of one person.”