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. [caption id="attachment_11212" align="alignright" width="188" caption="Solomon Brown’s August 12, 1862 letter to Spencer F. Baird (click to enlarge), by Solomon Brown, 1862, Document, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7002, Box 16, Folders 11-12."][/caption] 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. [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="368" caption="International Exchange Service Staff on the steps of the “Castle,” From L-R, (top): George L. Snider, John S. Pollock, George Boehmer, William C. Winlock, Mazie R. Fountaine, Thomas Watkins; (bottom): Edward Daniel Hardy, Solomon G. Brown, Henry A. Parker, Coates Walton Shoemaker, George C. French, Oliver C. Hine, Ferdinand V. Berry, Morsell A. Tolson, by Unidentified photographer, July 10, 1891, Black and White Document, Smithsonian Institution Archives, RU 95, Box 28, Folder 33, Negative Number 85-16318."][/caption] 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.