The Black Abolitionist Papers - Vol. 1

By C. Peter Ripley | Go to book overview

65.
Speech by William Wells Brown Delivered at the Town Hall, Manchester, England 1 August 1854

One month before departing from Britain for the United States, William Wells Brown spoke in Manchester at the "Great Anti-Slavery Conference"--a day-long meeting sponsored by the North of England Anti- Slavery and India Reform League to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of British West Indian emancipation. The evening session filled the Manchester Town Hall; many were left standing. British abolitionists George Thompson and Frederick W. Chesson and blacks Samuel Ringgold Ward, William P. Powell, William North, and Brown's daughters, Josephine and Clarissa, attended. Elderly local magistrate Absolom Watkin presided and introduced speakers Dr. John R. Beard, a Manchester clergyman, and American abolitionist Parker Pillsbury, who urged British remonstrance against the Fugitive Slave Law.

Brown began his speech by questioning a comment made earlier in the day that he had been purchased "by the liberality of the British people." He indicated that he was uncertain whether or not the purchase had been completed. Brown's speech, like those of so many of his black professional colleagues who toured Britain, was directed at two audiences--the people in attendance and the people back home. Brown had received considerable criticism from some American Garrisonians for allowing himself to be purchased out of slavery. The critics suggested that such a purchase tacitly endorsed the view of slaves as property. Brown explained the Fugitive Slave Law to his listeners and simultaneously justified his behavior to American detractors, knowing that they would shortly read his words in the American reform press. Lib, 25 August, 1 September 1854; Farrison, William Wells Brown, 241-42.

Mr. Chairman, and ladies and gentlemen, I would much have preferred that my friend Mr. Pillsbury1 should have occupied the time that is intended for myself. As has been said, he is not only thoroughly acquainted with the working of slavery in the United States, but he is one of its oldest and best pioneers. He has had the advantage of early education, he has the advantage of me at the present time, and I feel confident could not only claim your attention, but could give you better information in a better manner than I could possibly hope to do. I stand to-night without ever having had a day's schooling in my life. You have been called together to hear men speak to-night--I am here as a piece of property. I am a slave according to the laws of the United States at the present time. Something has been said this afternoon about my having

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