As we celebrate National Poetry Month, it is a good time to celebrate the poets of the Smithsonian. Poetry can pop up in the most surprising places around the Smithsonian – on images of snowflakes, in scientists’ field books, and in the personal papers of our first Secretary, Joseph Henry.
One of the Smithsonian’s most prolific poets was Solomon G. Brown. One of our earliest employees, and the first African American employee, Brown was an assistant to Spencer Baird and a pivotal force in creating the U.S. National Museum. Originally hired in 1852 by Secretary Joseph Henry as a laborer, Brown soon became fast friends with then Assistant Secretary Baird. As an assistant to Baird, Brown quickly rose through the ranks at the Smithsonian, becoming Baird’s ‘eyes-and-ears’ whenever he was away from the Institution. Brown collected artifacts and specimens for the museum, served as an illustrator, and gave educational lectures to the African American community based on the Smithsonian’s collections and research. Within the larger Washington, D.C. community, he served in the D.C. House of Delegates and was a trustee of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church.
In addition to all these roles, Solomon Brown was a talented poet. As a public figure in Washington, D.C., his poems were published by the Smithsonian and he read them to local audiences and civic organizations. Perhaps his most famous poem is "Fifty Years Today" commemorating his fifty years of service at the Smithsonian. In it he speaks of the people and places that have meant so much to him:
My mind goes back to hallowed spots
Fraught by memories by some forgot;
Which brings up friends most dear to me
Who’ve long since gone beyond the sea –
It seems I’ll not forget them.
A prolific writer, his poems were gathered together in a volume published by the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum (now the Anacostia Community Museum) in 1983. The poems featured showed the breadth of his poetry and his ability to capture everyday life for a free black man in Washington, D.C. Brown writes in memoriam of friends who passed away, in celebration of Easter 1905, in the voice of a wife, and on the place of a free African American man. In his piece "Time Dealing with Man," he explores the inevitability of passing time:
To day if wisdom lifts her voice,
let it read the heart,
Look, see just what your calling is,
rise up and take your part,
To morrow it may never come,
time may end to day,
Sing before the morrow comes, time
may pass away.
Awake, arise stand up as men, none
can do your part,
Nothing is accomplished here,
except you make the start
Begin just at the starting place,
end when you are done,
Time will pay what wages due,
at your setting sun.
Brown’s poems are not only beautiful pieces of art, but a window into his daily life both at the Smithsonian and in Washington, D.C. While this certainly isn’t the only poetry written about life at the Smithsonian, his is most likely the first.
Solomon G. Brown, Renaissance Man, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Solomon G. Brown's Poetry, Smithsonian Collections Blog
Solomon Brown, "Fifty Years To-day," poem commemorating his 50th anniversary of employment at the Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Kind Regards of S.G. Brown, Smithsonian Institution Archives