Reprinted from: The Journal of Negro History


In January, 1834, William Wells Brown, a mulatto youth about nineteen years of age, escaped from slavery in Missouri and settled in Cleveland, Ohio. There he began working, educating himself, and reading antislavery newspapers. During the following summer he became a workman on a Lake Erie steamboat and continued as such for nine years. By the end of the summer he had met, wooed, and married Elizabeth Schooner, whom he affectionately called Betsey; and by the end of the year he had established a home in the city and had begun to bring up a family.At the end of the summer of 1836 Brown moved his family to Buffalo, New York, for several reasons. Because Buffalo was a terminus of the lake steamboat lines, it was more convenient for a steamboat workman to reside there than in Cleveland. In addition to being then three times as large as Cleveland, it had a much larger Negro population-a fact which seemed to indicate that opportunities for employment f or Negroes were more numerous there. Brown was interested in this fact, of course, for every year after the navigation season he would need to find other work, as he had had to do during the two preceding winters. Another fact which Brown could not have overlooked was that it was comparatively easy to move quickly from Buffalo to Canada-whither he might find it necessary to move he knew not how soon. There was also a circumstance of which Brown was unaware at the time but which began within the next decade to determine the course of his life for many years. Removal to Buffalo brought him into a little closer contact with Garrisonian abolitionism, which was soon to develop in western New York. Many years were to pass, however, before he was to know William Lloyd Garrison personally and to be directly influenced by him. When Brown moved to Buffalo, presumably he found a house somewhere in the area east of Michigan Avenue and between Exchange Street and Broadway, for that was where the majority of the Negroes in the city were living when he settled there. I have searched the city directories of Buffalo for the period beginning with 1836 and ending with 1844; and in these directories, which listed residents by race, I found no Negro named Brown listed for any year earlier than 1841. In the directories for this year and the next William Brown, "cook," was listed as a householder on North Division Street, and in the directory for 1844 William W. Brown, "lecturer," was listed as a house holder at 13 Pine Street.' Both of these addresses are in the area designated above. The first two listings might or might not have referred to Brown. Inasmuch as the name William Brown was common then, as it still is, and Negro cooks were relatively numerous, as they still are, there might have been in Buffalo at the time another Negro who had this name and who was a cook-which William Wells Brown is not known to have been. The third listing almost certainly referred to Brown, for before 1844 he had become a lecturer for the Western New York Antislavery Society, and lecturing of any kind was not a common occupation among Negroes. No directories of Buffalo seem to have been published for either 1843 or 1845. Early in the summer of the last mentioned year Brown moved his home to Farmington, Ontario County, and there was no reason for the inclusion of his name in later directories of Buffalo.

Before his removal from Cleveland, Brown had become a practicing as well as a practical abolitionist and was beginning to take just pride in the fact that he was losing none of his "cases." Soon after he began working on the lake steamers, he had begun to carry fugitive slaves to Canada by way of both Detroit and Buffalo. In his "lucrative situation on one of the lake steamboats" he found it convenient and often adventurous to hide fugitives from injustice, as they came to be called, and to convey them beyond the jurisdiction of the "person held to service or labor" clause in the United States Constitution, Article IV, Section 2, and the Federal fugitive slave law of 1793. Once, according to a tale Brown told long after he had left the region of the Great Lakes, a young fugitive of very dark complexion was trailed by his claimant to the home of an abolitionist in Cleveland. For ten days the claimant and his coadjutors watched so closely the abolitionist's home and also all steamboats departing from Cleveland, that it seemed impossible for the fugitive to avoid recapture. In this emergency Brown secured the help of a painter; and, "In an hour, by my directions, the black man was as white, and with as rosy cheeks, as any of the Anglo-Saxon race, and disguised in the dress of a woman, with a thick veil over her face." Thus disguised and with Brown as his guide, the fugitive embarked on the steamer North America, without being recognized by his claimant, and was

carried to Buffalo, whence he proceeded to Canada.

Here Brown seems to have adhered much closer to the spirit than to the letter of truth. Unless the painter was miraculously skillful and the pursuers of the fugitive were inconceivably naive, painting the fugitive as Brown said he had him painted would have been an ingenious way, not of concealing his identity, but of calling attention to him. It is true, of course, that in escaping from slavery fugitives often assumed various disguises; and in helping as many to escape as he did, Brown had to resort from time to time to various expediencies. Some of these might have seemed incredible, but to be useful all of them had to be probable as well as possible-which painting a fugitive hardly seems to have been.

Within a few weeks after his removal to Buffalo, Brown participated in what might have been called the clearing of a wreck, on the Underground Railroad. About this time Bacon Tate, a slave-trader of Nashville, Tennessee, went to Buffalo to recapture some slaves who had escaped from Nashville and had settled in the Niagara area. Among these was a family whose surname was Stanford and who had established a home in Saint Catherines, Ontario. The family consisted of a man, his wife, and their child about six weeks old. With the assistance of "a profligate colored woman" who was a servant in the Eagle Tavern in Buffalo, Tate informed himself concerning the situation of the Stanfords, and late one Saturday night be sent four men to Saint Catherines to kidnap them. At sunrise the next morning, with their captives bound and gagged in a carriage the kidnappers crossed the Black Rock Ferry on the Niagara River. After stopping for a few minutes in Buffalo, where their number was reduced and their team was changed, the kidnappers proceeded southward to Hamburg, about eleven miles from Buffalo. There they stopped at an inn to change horses again. Meanwhile, the kidnapping having been discovered in Saint Catherines, news of it bad reached Buffalo before noon, and a group of Negroes from that city, including Brown, had gone in pursuit of the kidnappers and their captives. The group overtook them at an inn in Hamburg, where, encouraged by the innkeeper, they quickly rescued the Stanfords and took them northward again, followed by the kidnappers. When Tate, who was still in Buffalo, was informed about the turn of affairs, he appealed to the sheriff of Erie County for help. Late in the afternoon a group of about fifty persons, most of whom were Negroes, armed with pistols, knives, and clubs took the Stanfords to the Black Rock Ferry to send them back to Saint Catherines. They were intercepted near the ferry by a sheriff's posse of "some sixty or seventy men," and a free-for-all fight between the two groups ensued. Amid the confusion thus created, the Stanfords were put in a boat and rowed across the Niagara River to Canada, while the rescuers and their sympathizers cheered.

Now that their aim had been accomplished, about forty of the rescuers submitted to arrest by the sheriff's posse and were taken to Buffalo and imprisoned for the night. Whether Brown was one of the forty who were arrested is not altogether clear; but if he was, this seems to have been the only instance of his being in prison after he freed himself from slavery. On the following Monday morning those who had been arrested were taken before a justice named Grosvenor and charged with breaking the peace of the Sabbath and apparently with unlawful assembly. Twenty-five of them were bound for appearance in a higher court, by which they were eventually found guilty and fined from five to fifty dollars. No one had been killed in the melee at the ferry; but one man, who was an actor, had been so badly wounded that he died three months later. "Thus ended," said Brown, "one of the most fearful fights for human freedom that I ever witnessed." Freedom, he had found, was indeed more than a word. It involved fighting not only for one's own security but also for that of others; and paradoxically enough, it might mean imprisonment or even death for its defenders. A search of the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser for September, October, and November, 1836, the principal newspaper then being published in Buffalo, revealed no information about the incident I have just synopsized. My authority for it is Brown's account, which seems to have been first published in his Narrative, Fourth Edition, Boston, 1849, pages 109-124.

In a lecture before a small audience in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, on October 4,1854. Brown incidentally referred to his participation during his residence in Buffalo in another kind of rescue of a man who had been accused of being a fugitive slave. According to Brown, on one occasion he and other abolitionists retained Millard Fillmore as counsel "for an alleged fugitive" and that Fillmore served without accepting a fee, explaining that he considered it "his duty to help the poor fugitive." This was the same Fillmore, Brown observed, who as President of the United States had signed the Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850.Brown also did anti-slavery work, in Buffalo in less dramatic but none the less effective ways. He welcomed antislavery agents and lecturers as guests in his home. He made his house a station on the Underground Railroad; and because many fugitive slaves passed through Buffalo en route to Canada, he frequently had stopover passengers to accommodate. Moreover, "As Niagara Falls were [sic] only twenty miles from Buffalo, slaveholders not unfrequently passed through the latter place attended by one or more slave servants. Mr. Brown was always on the lookout f or such, to inform them that they were free by the laws of New York,

and to give the necessary aid.

Among the Negroes in Buffalo Brown discovered many who, like himself, had freed themselves from chattel slavery; but among them he also found many who were being victimized by another kind of servitude, namely, servitude to intoxicating drinks. In order to abolish this evil, Brown organized a temperance society-one of the first to be organized in western New York-and served as president of it for three terms." That the society became popular and made progress was evidenced by the fact that it grew rapidly. According to Brown's earliest published account of it, within three years its membership numbered more than five hundred of the total Negro population of less than seven hundred which Buffalo then had." In 1843, however, after Brown had retired from the presidency of the organization, it had "upwards of 300 members," although the Negro population of the city had not decreased, even if it had not been noticeably increased."

While this society flourished, it met periodically to discuss and promote temperance, but its meetings incidentally served other good purposes. They became forums in which members were afforded opportunities to learn the fundamentals of parliamentary procedure and public speaking. In these meetings Brown learned both and thereby further prepared himself, as he was doing by studying grammar, mathematics, history, and literature, for the work he was to begin doing as an antislavery lecturer within the next six or seven years. He did not then know, of course, exactly what work he was to do during the next twenty-five years, that temperance reform was not to be his primary interest for that period, nor that he would devote much time to it during the last twenty years of his life. Without losing interest in the cause of temperance, he became increasingly interested in the organized abolition movement and sought to translate his interest into action more extensive than his work as a conductor on the Underground Railroad had been. In the mean time other things beside temperance and abolitionism claimed some of his attention.

A daughter had been born to the Browns in 1835 and another in 1836, while they were still living in Cleveland. The first of these children bad died when she was only a few months old. In the summer of 1839 a third daughter was born to the Browns and was named Josephine. This was the child -who within twenty years was to make her father proud of her for many reasons. But now while she was a baby, although she filled her father's eyes with light, he was worried about her and her sister's future. Because of the pro-slavery power in the South and the anti-Negro sentiment in the North, he could hardly expect that there would ever be realized in America for either Josephine or her three-years-old sister the kind of future he wanted to be theirs. Could it be realized anywhere else! He wondered. Why not travel a little and try to find out?

In 1840 Brown visited Cuba and Haiti and possibly other islands in the West Indies. If the purpose of his trip was what I have conjectured in the preceding paragraph, probably Haiti was his principal objective. He had doubtless heard of the successful revolution of the Haitian Negroes and was interested in the possibilities of life unhampered by race prejudice in the Negro republic. On the contrary, knowing that slavery still existed in Cuba and that it had been only recently abolished in the British West Indies, he could scarcely have dreamed of finding better prospects in the former than in the United States or as good opportunities in the latter as in Canada. Brown probably was not favorably impressed by what he saw on his trip. Anyway, he said nothing about it in any of the editions of his Narrative or in any of his autobiographical sketches, nor did his daughter Josephine mention it in her biography of him.

In his The Negro Author, New York, 1931, page 168, Vernon Loggins said that possibly Brown made a trip to the West Indies between 1854 and 1863. Loggins's conjecture is based on Brown's statement in the "Preface" to his The Black Man, New York and Boston, 1863, page 6, that he had visited the West Indies. In this statement there is no specific reference to time. Apparently Loggins was unaware of Brown's remark in his The Rising Son, Boston, 1874 pages 80 and 140, that he had visited Havana in 1840 and Haiti about the same time. I have traced Brown's activities in the northern United States and Canada month by month from his return to America in September, 1854, after a sojourn of five years in Great Britain, to December, 1858, and from May, 1859, to December, 1862, when the first edition of The Black Man, including the "Preface," was actually published. If Brown made a trip to the West Indies between the dates mentioned by Loggins, he must have done so during the first four months of 1859, and that trip should not be confused with the one he made in 1840.





William Wells Brown


-Image source: http://www.cwo.com/~lucumi/brown.html

After visiting the West Indies, which he might have done between navigation seasons on the Great Lakes, Brown returned to his work on one of the lake steamers and therewith to his conductorship on the Underground Railroad. As an officer on what might have been called the Lake Eric Division of this railroad, he was popular and busy. Between the first of May and the first of December, 1842, he carried sixty-nine fugitive slaves to Canada. In 1843 on a trip to southern Ontario, he renewed acquaintances with many Negroes whom he had helped to get there. In the village of Malden alone he saw seventeen who had been his passengers."

During Brown's nine years of freedom his observations in Cleveland, Buffalo, and elsewhere had aroused in him a profound concern for the welfare and the future of Negroes in America; but he had not learned much about what Negroes beyond the communities with which he was familiar were doing as a group to improve their condition, nor had he become acquainted with the Negroes who might be correctly considered leaders beyond their respective communities. Before the end of the summer of 1843 he learned a great deal about what Negroes as a group were trying to do for themselves, and he came to know many of the Negroes who had achieved some prominence and whose names he had seen occasionally in antislavery newspapers. Early in August, with the Reverend George Bradburn of Massachusetts, Frederick Douglass arrived in Buffalo to hold antislavery meetings. These meetings had been scheduled as a part of the " Second Series " of the " One Hundred Antislavery Conventions" which were to be held during the last six months of 1843 "chiefly in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. Being displeased with both the place provided for the meetings and the first audience, which seemed to him to consist of 'ragamuffins", Bradburn withdrew and took the next steamboat to Cleveland, where his brother Charles resided. The meetings were to be held in an old building at the intersection of Washington and Seneca Streets, because it was the best place available to the local abolitionists who had arranged for the meetings. This structure had once been a Baptist church, but more recently it had been the central post office. There Douglass spoke daily for almost a week "to audiences constantly increasing in numbers and respectability," until a Baptist church "was thrown open" to him; and when the church became overcrowded, he "went on Sunday into the open Park and addressed an assembly of four or five thousand persons". If Brown attended these meetings, as presumably he did, they were probably the first occasions on which he saw Douglass and heard him speak; and as will be seen, he accredited Douglass with doing remarkable good for abolitionism in Buffalo. In November, 1842, the American Antislavery Society had held a series of conventions in Rochester, Syracuse, and Utica mainly for the purpose of counteracting the influence of the Liberty Party in what might have been regarded as its headquarters in western and central New York." Frederick Douglass, Charles Lenox Remond, and William Lloyd Garrison had been scheduled to participate in these conventions, but Garrison had been the only one of the three to get as far west as Rochester." For all three of them this had been the first trip to central and western New York.

Douglass and Remond made their second trip to the region and their first to Buffalo in the summer of 1843, while they were on their tour of the One Hundred Antislavery Conventions to which I have referred.

While reading the National Antislavery Standard for July 20, 1843, page 27, and The Liberator for July 21st, page 115, Brown must have seen an announcement saying that "A national convention of colored citizens of the United States" would be held in Buffalo on the third Tuesday in August, and expressing the hope "that all who can make it convenient to attend will be present to aid with their wisdom the deliberations of the meeting." The convention began "agreeably to the call", as was recorded in its official minutes, on Tuesday, August 15th, and continued for five days."' The "large public hall" in which the first session was held was the same building in which Douglass had recently lectured against slavery. About forty persons were present for this session. The six representatives from Buffalo were William Wells Brown, Samuel

H. Davis, Abner H. Francis, William Hall, Henry Thomas (one of the temporary Secretaries), and George Weir. The Reverend Amos G. Beman of New Haven, Connecticut, was chosen president of the convention and was supported by a superabundance of vice-presidents-seven of them, one of whom was Douglass.

Brown served on the Committee on the Roll of Delegaates, the Committee on Rules, and the Committee on Finance. The fifteen rules drawn up by the second of the committees just named, of which there were two members in addition to Brown, evinced a clear understanding on the part of the committee of parliamentary procedure. Brown spoke at several of the sessions but did not attract special attention as a speaker. Nothing he said and only extracts from other speeches were recorded in the minutes of the convention. The Buffalo Daily Gazette for Friday, August 18th, page [3], more or less favorably reported the convention and especially commended Henry Highland Garnet, then of Troy, and Douglass as speakers, but it did not mention the activities of Brown or any other representative from Buffalo. Apparently The Buffalo Commercial Advertiser carried no report of the convention.

At one of the sessions Garnet read his An Address to the Slaves of the United States of America, advising the bondmen to choose "Liberty or Death" and urging them to resort to violence if necessary to free themselves. The address provoked a considerable amount of discussion. A- M. Sumner of Cincinnati argued that adoption of it by the convention "would be fatal to the safety of the free people of color of the slave States, but especially so to those who lived on the borders of the free States...

Others who spoke against adoption were Beman, Brown, Douglass, and Remond. After being considered and reconsidered at several sessions, a motion f or the adoption Of the address was lost by a vote of 9-14. On the third day of the convention a resolution proclaiming it "the duty of every lover of liberty to vote the Liberty [Party] ticket so long as they are consistent with their principles" was passed, with seven dissenting votes. Brown, Douglass, and Remond were among the dissenters. At a session the next day it was resolved that the conventions should "hail with pleasure the organization of the Freeman's Party, based upon the great principles contained in the Declaration of Independence......... Brown, Douglass, and Remond opposed this resolution, because they took it for granted that the Freeman's Party was the same as the Liberty Party, and they "neither believed in the party, nor in the leading men of the party, and as a matter of course could not and would not enroll themselves under its broad banner, nor encourage others to do so;...... " As Garrisonian abolitionists, who advocated immediate emancipation but did not expect to achieve it directly by means of partisan politics, Douglass, at that time, and Remond were naturally unsympathetic towards the Liberty Party. Whether Brown's vote was determined by their influence or by his knowledge of the brief history of the Liberty Party there is no telling. In spite of opposition the resolution was adopted; but for Garnet, who had supported both this one and the one referring directly to the Liberty Party, and Brown this was not the end of the matter.

On August 30th and 31st, less than two weeks after the adjournment of the National Convention of Colored Citizens, the Liberty Party held a national convention in Buffalo. Brown was not one of the one hundred and forty-eight delegates who attended this convention, but he was at one of its sessions at which Garnet spoke. The latter's remarks on that occasion gave impulse to what seems to have been Brown's first writing to appear in print. This was a letter which was published in the National AntiSlavery Standard for October 5, 1843, page 70. In this letter Brown accused Garnet of erroneously reporting "in presence of one or two thousand people" that the National Convention of Colored Citizens had recently passed a resolution adopting the views of the Liberty Party, with only two dissenting votes, both of those having been cast by delegates "from Massachusetts'. From Garnet's reference to the residence of the two delegates, Brown identified them as Douglass and Remond; and after noting that "six or seven" had voted against the resolution, as he thought Garnet should have remembered, he confessed himself bewildered by Garnet's singularizing of these two individuals. The good antislavery work which Douglass and Remond had recently done in Buffalo as well as elsewhere, Brown thought, entitled them to much more credit than Garnet seemed willing to give them. "Who was it", Brown asked rhetorically, "that came to Buffalo, and by their eloquence, and enthusiasm in behalf of bleeding humanity, called thousands to hear them, and greet them with thunders of applause. Who was it that tore the veil of prejudice from the eyes of the whites of this city Who was it that came here when the doors of the churches were barred, and with their mighty voices caused them to open to the friends of the slave? Who [sic] are we mainly indebted to for the great change in public sentiment in this city? The unanimous voice of Buffalo will answer, Abby Kelley, George Bradburn, C. Lenox Remond, and Frederick Douglas [sic]. It was they that came here and prepared the citizen's of the city to receive friend Garnet, and the rest of those talented men that have visited Buffalo within the past summer; . . . . When I see such quibbling, by such men as Henry Highland Garnet, it makes me tremble for the fate of the slave at the hands of political parties".

From what I have said above on the basis of the official minutes of the National Convention of Colored Citizens, it appears that Garnet's account of the vote pertaining to the Liberty Party was erroneous, as Brown said it was. Whether Garnet ever publicly acknowledged his error has not been ascertained. I have found no statement from him in the Nation Antislavery Standard in reply to Brown's letter.

Meanwhile, late in the fall of 1843, probably not until after the navigation season on Lake Erie had ended for the year, Brown became a lecturing agent for the Western New York Antislavery Society."' The details of the new agent's agreement with this society, which had been only recently organized, seem to have remained unrecorded. It is exceedingly probable, however, that he began working for no specified salary, but received a part of whatever collections were taken after his lectures, as he was still doing as late as the spring of 1846. In a notice in the National Antislavery Standard for May 7th of that year, page 195, Joseph C. Hathaway of Farmington, who was then president of the society, appealed to the public for funds. In this notice Hathaway also said that Brown, "an eloquent and efficient laborer in the antislavery field", was the society's general agent and lecturer and that "While thus engaged, he is dependent for his sustenance on the aid of the philanthropist".

At first Brown limited his lecture trips to the towns and villages in Erie County or near it, for he was restricted no less by the want of experience than by the inconveniences which traveling in cold weather then entailed, especially for Negroes. But wherever he went, he found many who needed to be divested of race prejudice and converted to abolitionism. One of the first towns to which he went to lecture was Attica, about thirty-five miles east of Buffalo. After his meeting, which he held in the evening, he found that no tavern in the village would lodge him for the night. As a last resort he went back to the church in which he had lectured and spent the night there. Because it was extremely cold, he had to walk around in the building most of the night to keep from freezing. "If Brown was surprised by the indifference towards abolitionism which he found in some places, he had good reasons to be astonished by the antagonism towards it which he found in others. Early in the winter of 1844, probably in January, he went to East Aurora in Erie County and almost missed getting a hearing because of the anti-abolition spirit that prevailed there. In the autobiographical memoir in his The Black Man, published nineteen years later he related his experience in East Aurora on this occasion; and afterwards his account was corroborated by Alonzo D. Moore a native of the town. At the time of Brown's visit Moore was a little boy, but his father was Brown's host and introduced him to the assembly in the church in which he had been scheduled to lecture. Thirty years later Moore wrote a "Memoir of the Author" for Brown's The Rising Son and in this he recounted some incidents connected with Brown's visit to East Aurora.

Upon arriving at the church Aloore's father and Brown found it already crowded-with what kind of audience they were not long discovering. As soon as Brown began his speech a mob consisting of the majority of the men present began coughing, whistling, and stamping their feet. During the barrage of noise thus created "unsalable eggs, peas, and other missiles were liberally thrown at the speaker". One of the eggs hit him in the face and spattered the bosom of his shirt, making, him look somewhat ridiculous for a few moments. If this was his first time to be so unceremoniously received by an audience, it was certainly not to be his last. From the experiences of other antislavery agents he already knew that he must either learn to master situations like this one or give up as an antislavery lecturer.

After half an hour of excitement Brown descended from the pulpit; and standing in front of the altar he told the rabble that he would not address them even if they wanted him to do so and that it any of them had been held in slavery as he had been, they would not have had the courage to escape, for their actions of the last half-hour had shown them to be cowards. Then he told of his life as a slave and how he had escaped and concluded his narrative with an appeal for the abolition of race prejudice and slavery. In this speech of an hour and a half he won the support of an erstwhile antagonistic audience for the cause he represented.

Prior to the meeting some members of the mob had taken to the belfry over the main entrance to the church a bag of flour which they had intended to empty on Brown when he went out. But the man who had been designated to decoy Brown to the place in which he could be floured and to signal his cohorts at the opportune time had been so favorably impressed by Brown's speech, that instead of leading Brown into the trap, he warned him concerning it, even telling him what the signal for the pouring of the flour was to be. Taking the scheme for a hoax, Brown maneuvered to get the flour poured on others, who proved to be some of the best citizens of the town - and thereby caused the perpetrators of the prank to be arrested.

Within the next few months, having gained both self confidence and experience as a lecturer, Brown began filling engagements throughout western New York. Although he kept his home in Buffalo more than a year longer, he was out of Erie County as well as the city as much as he was in either. He was now acquiring a statewide reputation as an antislavery crusader, a reputation which within the next ten years was to spread throughout the northern part of the United States and also over Great Britain.


North Carolina College

at Durham


William E. Farrisson

This article was transcribed from:

The Journal of Negro History

VOL. XXXIX, NO. 4 OCTOBER, 1954. Permissions were requested.

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For more information see:

The Niagara Movement
By William Evitts
Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society

It can be argued that the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement began in Western New York and adjoining Fort Erie, Canada, in 1905. An African-American organization created here espoused for the first time a modern program of uncompromising protest and demand for change, and led the way for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) five years later. (note: Here we are using 1910 as the official opening year of the NAACP, though there were preliminary meetings in 1909.)... more>>



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