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John Brown Russwurm. Oil on canvas, c. 1850, by Unidentified Artist. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; transfer from the Library of Congress.


Russwurm, John Brown (01 October 1799–09 June 1851), journalist and first nonwhite governor of Maryland in Liberia Colony, West Africa, was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica, the son of John Russwurm, a white American merchant, and an unidentified Jamaican black woman. As a boy known only as John Brown, Russwurm was sent to Canada for an education by his father. After his father’s settlement in Maine and marriage in 1813 to a white New England widow with children, he entered the new family at his stepmother’s insistence. John Brown thereupon assumed his father’s surname and remained with his stepmother even after the senior Russwurm’s death in 1815. His schooling continued at home and, later, at preparatory institutes such as the North Yarmouth Academy in Maine. He made a short, unhappy visit to Jamaica and returned to Portland, Maine, to begin collegiate study. Thrown on his own after just one year because of his sponsor’s inability to continue support, young Russwurm took a succession of brief teaching jobs at African free schools in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston....