The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Solomon G. Brown, Renaissance Man
The Smithsonian Institution Archives will be celebrating African American History Month throughout February with a series of related posts on THE BIGGER PICTURE.
“I have engaged in almost Every Branch of work that is usual and unusual about S.I.”
These words, written by Solomon G. Brown to Secretary Spencer F. Baird on August 12, 1862, encapsulate his long and eclectic career at the Smithsonian Institution. In 1902, he wrote a poem commemorating his fifty years at the Smithsonian—spanning the Institution’s first and formative years. Brown, born a free man when slavery was legal in Washington, D.C., became one of the first African Americans to work at the Smithsonian. He held many titles and performed many duties in service to the Institution.
Born around 1829, Brown was one of six children. With the unfortunate death of his father in 1833, Brown’s chance of attending school and receiving a formal education was over. However, Brown began working for Lambert Tree, assistant postmaster with the D.C. post office. It was in this capacity that Brown first met Joseph Henry, the first Smithsonian Secretary. Tree detailed Brown to work with Henry, Samuel B. Morse, and Alfred Vail who were developing the first magnetic telegraph that ran from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland.
Brown was hired as a general laborer by the Smithsonian in 1852 under Henry. Initially, he built exhibit cases, cleaned and moved furniture for the Institution, and shortly thereafter became the supervisor of a small group of Smithsonian workers. Brown developed a close relationship with then Assistant Secretary (and later the Smithsonian’s second Secretary) Spencer F. Baird, a naturalist, and the two worked together closely until Baird’s death in 1887. Baird trusted Brown implicitly and when out of town relied on Brown to be his “eyes and ears” of the Institution. Brown and Baird frequently corresponded about the operations of the Smithsonian, city events, and their personal lives, sharing a wry sense of humor about life. From their letters we learn that Brown entertained visitors, handled the mail, made travel arrangements, and paid the household staff for the Baird family. We also get a sense of a free African American man’s perspective on the progress of the Civil War, as it raged around him.
Although he lacked a formal education, Brown embodied a Renaissance Man. Not only did he excel as a naturalist, but he was an illustrator, lecturer, philosopher, and poet. He illustrated maps and specimens for many of his lectures—including his first “The Social Habits of Insects,” which he delivered to church organizations and civic groups. Brown also gave public readings of his poetry, which focused on religion and the social issues of the day.
Brown’s activities reached beyond the walls of the Smithsonian. Within his Anacostia (Hillsdale) community, Brown was viewed as a prominent leader. Brown and his wife Lucinda hosted picnics for their local community, one of which was attended by Frederick Douglass. He was elected to the D.C. House Delegates, served as superintendent of the Pioneer Sabbath School and the North Washington Mission Sunday school, and was a trustee of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church. He was strongly committed to bettering education for the African American community.
A man of limitless energy, Solomon G. Brown continued to work at the Smithsonian, write, draw, and serve his community until his retirement on February 14, 1906. Not long afterward, Brown died at his home on June 24, 1906. Over a century has passed, yet Brown’s devotion to the foundation of the Smithsonian is still remembered today. In 2004, several trees were planted around the National Museum of Natural History in his honor.