Bristol Historical Society to auction rare book


In a town steeped in history that includes the seafaring life, slavery and the evolution of society, Bristol is also home to a first edition autobiography penned by the son of a slave who became one of the most prominent African American men in the nineteenth-century Rhode Island.

The book, entitled “The Life of William J. Brown,” is owned by the Bristol Historical and Preservation Society. However, since the perspectives in the writings reach throughout Rhode Island, BHPS president Derry Riding feels that the book shouldn’t be confined to a Bristol audience. And, by the end of the month, this unique piece of Rhode Island history will go to the highest bidder.

“This really is a unique piece,” Ms. Riding said. “On one hand, it’s a piece of history. At the same time, it’s not Bristol. It doesn’t go along with what we specifically collect.”

The organization regularly receives boxes of donated artifacts that may be of interest to them, although members were not sure how the BHPS acquired this book, specifically.

“We rely on the kindness of strangers,” said Ray Battcher, curator/librarian for the society.

The book was set aside and rediscovered seven or eight months ago.

“We were tidying up and found it in a collection,” Ms. Riding said.

Ms. Riding said it was when she attended a lecture given by Rhode Island based book reviewer Ray Rickman, that she decided to sell the book through auction.

“When I told him I had a first edition by William Brown, he lit up,” Ms. Riding said.

The two discussed the significance of the book and the potential for it to help raise money and become part of someone’s broader collection.

“This is a first. We have done auctions with stuff we’ve had donated, but this is a first for a book,” Ms. Riding said.

The book is an autobiography, written in 1883 when Mr. Brown was 69 years old. He died three years later. His story portrays life and society in nineteenth-century New England, including accounts of his childhood, his unusually good educational opportunities, employment, race relations, religion, and local and national politics.

Unlike other documents of the era which are frequently written from the perspective of upper-middle-class white Americans, Mr. Brown’s perspectives provides a firsthand window on black experiences in nineteenth-century New England.

The Bristol Historical and Preservation Society will be conducting a private auction for this historic book and cultural artifact. Individuals and institutions interested in purchasing the book should contact Ms.  Riding by e-mail at or by phone at 253-7223.

The initial bid is $1,200, although, said Ms. Riding, experts believe the book’s value to be far higher. Bids will be received until Feb. 1, 2013.

Proceeds from the sale will be shared with The Rhode Island Black Heritage Society to benefit the ongoing programs of both organizations.


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