William Wells Brown
The text below is excerpted from
"High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York." by Mark Goldman. Pub. by State U. of New York Press, Albany, 1983, pp. 88-90
By the 1840s the city's reputation as a critical junction on the underground railroad began to spread and soon blacks -- some former slaves, others born free -- were coming to Buffalo.
One of them was William Wells Brown, a runaway slave from Missouri who had moved to Buffalo from Cleveland in 1836. Brown quickly became active in the city's Anti-Slave Society as a lecturer and organizer. One of Brown's special gambits was to station members of the society in the vicinity of the American falls at Niagara Falls, and when wealthy southern tourists came to view the falls with their slaves in tow, Brown and his men would secretly lure them from their masters and inform them that according to the law of New York State their journey in this free state had made them free men. (This, of course, was to be undone by the Dred Scott ruling in 1854.)
Brown dedicated his life to reform. Sometimes it was temperance, other times women's suffrage and prison reform. But always he fought for the abolition of slavery.
While living in Buffalo during the late 1830s and early 1840s, Brown took jobs that specifically placed him in close contact with slaves. Once he worked as a cook on a lake steamer that traveled between Buffalo and Cleveland, secretly concealing fugitive slaves bound for the Canadian border. Brown personally led them into the hands of another abolitionist agent who in turn smuggled them across the Niagara River to freedom in Canada. During the spring, summer, and fall of 1842 -- the months when the lake and the river were passable -- Brown smuggled over seventy fugitives to Canada.
Buffalo's reputation as a center of anti-slave activity grew. and in August 1843 the city hosted two national abolitionist conventions. One was the National Convention of Colored Men. The other was the National Convention of the Liberty Party.
One of the delegates who journeyed to Buffalo for both conventions (and a journey it was, for in the 1840s Buffalo had no railroad connections) was Frederick Douglass, who only five years earlier had escaped from slavery in Maryland. Although more likely than not he exaggerated his popular acceptance, Douglass reported that he had an extraordinarily successful week in Buffalo:
For nearly a week I spoke every day in this old post office to audiences constantly increasing in numbers and respectability [perhaps he was becoming a curiosity who attracted the attention of the wealthy] till the Baptist church was thrown open to me. When this became too small I went on Sunday into the open park and addressed an assembly of 4,000 persons.
Both conventions meeting within a few days of each other, took an uncompromising abolitionist position. But local abolitionist William Brown was bitterly critical of the Liberty Party, a white-dominated group that had nominated two former slave holders to national office. He accused them of capitalizing on the long and hard work of the black abolitionists, primarily his own.
In 1844, after a speech in the town of Attica (thirty-five miles east of Buffalo), Brown was refused accommodation in that hamlet. Following this incident, he left Buffalo forever.
Illustration source: On display in 2002 at Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society