Solomon G. Brown was born on February 14, 1829 in Washington D.C. He was the first African American employee of the Smithsonian Institution. He was also a poet, lecturer, and scientific technician. He joined the Smithsonian in 1852 and remained there for fifty-four years until he retired in 1906. During his career at the Smithsonian, he worked for the National Museum, the International Exchange Service, the Bureau of American Ethnology, and the National Zoological Park. He had many duties within the Smithsonian, which include: working as a general laborer who built exhibit cases, moved and cleaned furniture, assisted in preparing maps, and drew for Smithsonian lectures. He worked under the first three Smithsonian secretaries, Joseph Henry, Spencer Fullerton Baird, and Samuel Pierpont Langley.
Solomon G. Brown was the fourth of six children to his parents Isaac and Rachel Brown. His parents were former slaves, but he was born a free man. His father died in 1832 and his family was left homeless with heavy debt. Brown was unable to be formally educated because he had to work in order to support his family. When he was fifteen he worked at the Washington D.C. Post Office as a postmaster assistant. At that same time he assisted Joseph Henry and Samuel F.B. Morse with the installation of the first Morse telegraph. For the next seven years he continued to work for Samuel F.B. Morse.
Joseph Henry first hired Brown as a general laborer. In 1864, he became a museum assistant and by 1869 he was the registrar in charge of transportation, registry, and the storage of animal specimens and materials received by the institution. Out of all the three secretaries that he worked with, he worked closely with Spencer Baird. Spencer Baird was a successful ornithologist and Brown spent a lot of time assisting him. When Baird was out of town, he trusted Brown to be the “eyes and ears” of the Smithsonian. Brown would do clerical duties for Baird, for example, he entertained visitors, opened and forward mail, made the Baird family’s travel arrangements, and gave out wages to the workers of the Baird household.
Brown was an activist who volunteered in civic and educational programs to help the African American community. He was the founder of the Pioneer Sabbath School in Washington D.C. and was also the superintendent of the North Washington Mission Sunday School. He was elected as president of the National Union League in 1866, which was a political organization in the south of the United States for African Americans.
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Another accomplishment Brown had was that he served three terms as a member of the House of Delegates for Washington D.C. from 1871-1874. He represented all the people who lived in Anacostia. He was the first member to be certified by the governor of Washington D.C., Henry D. Cooke. Brown was also part of the National Black Leadership Committee that arranged for the unveiling of Thomas Ball’s sculptor Emancipation Memorial Monument in Washington’s Lincoln Park. There was a large group of people who attended the unveiling, such as, President Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass. In his personal life, he was married to Lucinda. They did not have children themselves, but they did have a large family of nieces (some they adopted) and boarders. Together they would have picnics for their local community. Brown spent some time writing poetry, in which some appeared in the local African American newspapers, such as, “The Washington Bee.” Brown only had a little time after he retired from the Smithsonian. He retired on February 14, 1906 and died June 26, 1906 at his home. He is still remembered today, and in 2004 a few trees were planted around the National Museum of Natural History in his honor.
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