Solomon Brown was the first African-American to work for the Smithsonian Institution. He served at the institution for 54 years from 1852 to 1906.
While working at the Smithsonian, he held many positions and titles. He served under the first three Smithsonian Secretaries: Joseph Henry, Spencer Fullerton Baird, and Samuel P. Langley. Brown was also a prominent advocate of African American issues throughout the black community in Anacostia, part of the greater Washington D.C. area.
I have engaged in almost every branch of work that is usual and unusual about S.I.
Brown was born around the late 1820s and was one of six children. His father died when he was just 4 years old, which reduced Browns’ chance of receiving a proper formal education during that period.
As a young man, Brown worked for Lambert Tree, the assistant postmaster with the DC post office. Tree introduced Brown to Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian’s first secretary. It was not long after meeting Henry that Brown began working for the Smithsonian. Brown was hired as a general laborer by the Smithsonian under Henry.
Brown developed a close friendship with the Assistant Secretary Baird, who was a naturalist and later second Secretary of the Institution. Brown and Baird worked together until Baird’s death in 1887. Baird had trusted Brown implicitly, and when out of town, relied on Brown to be his “eyes and ears” of the Institution. Brown took over responsibilities such as entertaining guests, making travel arrangements, performing clerical duties, paying house staff, and many other Smithsonian duties. While working with Baird, Brown made sure he took the opportunity to educate himself in the field of natural history.
After Baird’s death in 1887, Brown served as a clerk for the Smithsonian International Exchange Service, distributing scholarly publications around the world. Although Brown did not have much formal education, he was considered to be a Renaissance man by many of his colleagues and superiors. He was respected by his peers for his great accomplishments and was also known as Professor Brown.