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Solomon G. Brown

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
This photo of Brown as most likely taken at the same time as the staff photo of the International Exchange Service. See Negative #77-15013 (SIA, RU95, B28, F33). See biography of Brown by Louise D. Hutchinson, 'With Kindest Regards': Solomon G. Brown.

Solomon G. Brown (1852-1906), clerk of Secretary Spencer F. Baird (1878-1887) and poet, seen here standing outside, probably on the Mall. Brown worked at the Smithsonian for over fifty years and was possibly the first African American Smithsonian employee.

Portrait of Solomon G. Brown

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Included in a scrapbook of Solomon Brown's family genealogy, as compiled by Ms. Clara Ellis Bailey Payne. The scrapbook includes copies of poems written by Solomon G. Brown, photographs, lists of family trees, and copies of death certificates.

Solomon G. Brown was hired as the Smithsonian Institution's first African American employee, spending most of his career as a clerk to Spencer Fullerton Baird. Brown worked for 54 years at the Smithsonian (1850-1904), fulfilling many duties under secretaries Joseph Henry, Spencer Fullerton Baird, and Samuel P. Langley. Brown formed a very close bond with Baird, becoming his "eyes and ears" when Baird was out of town. He was also a naturalist, poet, illustrator, and lecturer. Although he had no formal education, Brown was known by many as Professor Brown.

A studio portrait of Solomon G. Brown standing in front of a tropical backdrop painted with two palm trees and a shoreline scene. Brown is standing on palm fronds in a suit, polka dot tie, and bowler hat with his left hand in his trouser pocket. Brown served as a clerk at the Smithsonian from 1850 until 1906.

Letter from Solomon Brown to Spencer Baird, 09/22/1856

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Solomon G. Brown was hired as the Smithsonian Institution's first African American employee, spending most of his career as a clerk to Spencer Fullerton Baird. Brown worked for 54 years at the Smithsonian (1850-1904), fulfilling many duties under secretaries Joseph Henry, Spencer Fullerton Baird, and Samuel P. Langley. Brown formed a very close bond with Baird, becoming his "eyes and ears" when Baird was out of town. He was also a naturalist, poet, illustrator, and lecturer. Although he had no formal education, Brown was known by many as Professor Brown.

Letter from Solomon G. Brown to Assistant Secretary and Curator Spencer Fullerton Baird about Secretary Joseph Henry and problems with the Fish Room in the Smithsonian Institution Building, or Castle, especially the smells emanating from it. Brown states that he is dismayed that Baird will be late returning from summer field work at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, because Secretary Henry was making threats to remove parts of the natural history collections. Secretary Henry preferred the Smithsonian Institution to remain solely research-based and not house any collections.

Letter from Secretary Samuel P. Langley to Solomon Brown, 11/25/1892

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Solomon G. Brown was hired as the Smithsonian Institution's first African American employee, spending most of his career as a clerk to Spencer Fullerton Baird. Brown worked for 54 years at the Smithsonian (1850-1904), fulfilling many duties under secretaries Joseph Henry, Spencer Fullerton Baird, and Samuel P. Langley. Brown formed a very close bond with Baird, becoming his "eyes and ears" when Baird was out of town. He was also a naturalist, poet, illustrator, and lecturer. Although he had no formal education, Brown was known by many as Professor Brown.

Letter from Secretary Samuel P. Langley to Solomon G. Brown concerning employment and layoffs. Langley informed Brown that while there will be layoffs, Brown will not be a part of them. Brown had worked at the Smithsonian since 1850.3

Solomon G. Brown Hired as First African American Worker at the Smithsonian, 1852

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
"Solomon Brown: First African American Employee at the Smithsonian Institution." Smithsonian Institution Archives. http://siarchives.si.edu/history/exhibits/stories/solomon-brown-first-african-american-employee-smithsonian-institution.

In 1852, Solomon G. Brown was hired as the Smithsonian Institution's first African American employee. Brown worked for 54 years at the Smithsonian, fulfilling many duties under secretaries Joseph Henry, Spencer Fullerton Baird, and Samuel P Langley. Brown formed a very close bond with Baird, becoming his "eyes and ears" when Baird was out of town. He was also a naturalist, poet, illustrator, and lecturer. Although he had no formal education, Brown was known by many as Professor Brown.

Solomon Brown Tribute with D. Evans, G. Lowe, C.E. Payne, D.B. Payne & C. Samper

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Original Image is a Born Digital from Accession 09-291. The original negative is tree.jpg. The image was featured in the July 2004 edition of the "Torch."

The image incorrectly lists Dr. Gail Lowe as Dr. Gail Evans.

The Smithsonian commemorated the 100th anniversary of the ground breaking for the Natural History Museum Building with a ceremony on June 15, 2004 which paid tribute to the memory of Solomon G. Brown, the Smithsonian Institution's first African American employee. Brown, who was at the 1904 ground breaking, was a self-taught natural historian and poet who worked for the Institution for more than 50 years. In his reminiscences, Brown expressed regret that the trees had to be cut down to build the new museum. In the image from the left, David Evans, Under Secretary for Science; Gail Lowe, senior historian, Anacostia Museum; Clara Ellis Payne and Darryl Brandon Payne, descendants of Solomon Brown; and Cristian Samper, National Museum of Natural History director.

Letter from Solomon G. Brown to S. F. Baird, July 15, 1864

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
SIA2011-0975 (page 1), SIA2011-0976 (page 2), SIA2011-0977 (page 3), SIA2011-0978 (page 4).

Letter from Solomon G. Brown, the first African American employee of the Smithsonian Institution, to then Assistant Secretary Spencer F. Baird, later the second Secretary of the Smithsonian, reporting on the Confederate troops' march on Washington, D.C. Brown describes the fear in the city at the approach of the rebels, but informed Baird that the troops had not invaded and D.C. was now safe. 4 pages.

Letter from Solomon G. Brown to S. F. Baird, September 23, 1864

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Letter from Solomon G. Brown, the first African American employee of the Smithsonian Institution, to then Assistant Secretary Spencer F. Baird, later the second Secretary, informing Baird of Brown's exemption from draft into military service for the Union during the Civil War due to physical disabilities, September 23, 1864.

Letter from Solomon G. Brown to S. F. Baird, August 6, 1864

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
SIA2011-0979 (page 1), SIA2011-0980 (page 2).

Letter from Solomon G. Brown, the first African American employee of the Smithsonian Institution, to then Assistant Secretary Spencer F. Baird, later the second Secretary, stating that he, Brown, sought an increase in wages from Secretary Joseph Henry, which was denied. He also reports on the death of the wife of a coworker.

Letter from Solomon G. Brown to S. F. Baird, September 6, 1862

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
SIA2011-0953 (page1), SIA2011-0954 (page 2).

The first African American employee of the Smithsonian Institution Solomon G. Brown's letter to the Assistant Secretary, later the second Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Spencer F. Baird, reporting that Confederate troops had arrived in Maryland and the railroads are unreliable for post. Brown promised to send the packages Baird had requested in a previous letter, but was unsure whether or when they would arrive. 2 pages.

Letter from Solomon G. Brown to S. F. Baird September 4, 1862

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Letter from Solomon G. Brown, the first African American employee of the Smithsonian Institution, to then Assistant Secretary Spencer F. Baird, and later second Secretary, reporting on the possible danger in Washington, D.C., due to Confederate troops nearby. Since the Smithsonian Institution Building, or "Castle," located in the center of D.C., was vulnerable to attack, Brown inquired as to whether he should get Baird's silver ready for sending to him at Carlisle.

Letter from Solomon G. Brown to S. F. Baird, August 15, 1866

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
SIA2011-0982 (page 1), SIA2011-0983 (page 2).

Letter from Solomon G. Brown, the first African American employee of the Smithsonian Institution, to the Assistant Secretary Spencer F. Baird, later the second Secretary, reporting on Brown's duties for Baird at the Smithsonian, including sending packages to the Baird family while they were away. August 15, 1866. 2 pages.

Letter from Solomon G. Brown to S. F. Baird, August 12, 1862

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
SIA2011-0947 (page 1), SIA2011-0948 (page 2), SIA2011-0949 (page 3), SIA2011-0950 (page 4), SIA2011-0951(page 5).

Letter from Solomon G. Brown, the first African American employee of the Smithsonian Institution, to then Assistant Secretary Spencer F. Baird, later the second Secretary, reporting on tasks completed and duties at the Smithsonian Institution including preparing packages for the International Exchange Service. 5 pages.

"Fifty Years To-day" Poem, 4 pages

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
"Fifty Years To-day" is a poem written by Solomon G. Brown, the first African American employee of the Smithsonian, commemorating his 50 years of continual service at the Smithsonian Institution. A ceremony was held on February 15th, 1902, honoring Brown. Samuel P. Langley was Secretary. It was published in a pamphlet made possible by "contributions of his friends at the Smithsonian Institution" in 1903. 4 pages.

Memorial Verse: In Memory of Isaac Brown

Anacostia Community Museum Archives
Information from "Kind Regards of S. G. Brown" selected Poems of Solomon G. Brown compiled by Lousie Daniel Hutchinson and Gail Sylvia Lowe, reads, "Brown wrote this 'memorial verse' in honor of his friend, Isaac Brown, who died April 26, 1894. Isaac Brown had been president of the Pioneer Sunday School Association, founded by S. G. Brown. This poem was read at the memorial service May 13, 1894. Privately printed."

The first African American employee of the Smithsonian Institution, Solomon G. Brown (1829?-1906) dedicated 54 years of service to the Smithsonian under three Secretaries: Joseph Henry, Spencer Baird, and Samuel P. Langley. The Social Habits of Insects, his first public lecture, was given before the Young People's Literary Society on January 10, 1855. Dedicated to his community, Brown was involved with a citizens' group that encouraged the Freedmen's Bureau to purchase land in the District of Columbia for homesteading by African Americans-some recently freed from slavery. He also served as a member of the House of Delegates under the Territorial Government of the District of Columbia in which he represented both blacks and whites residing in the Anacostia (Hillsdale) section of Washington, D. C. Solomon G. Brown retired from the Smithsonian on February 14, 1906, and died at his home in Anacostia, D.C., on June 24, 1906.

Adze blade

National Museum of the American Indian

Petition to Board of Regents, 11/13/1869

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Solomon G. Brown was hired as the Smithsonian Institution's first African American employee, spending most of his career as a clerk to Spencer Fullerton Baird. Brown worked for 54 years at the Smithsonian (1850-1904), fulfilling many duties under secretaries Joseph Henry, Spencer Fullerton Baird, and Samuel P. Langley. Brown formed a very close bond with Baird, becoming his "eyes and ears" when Baird was out of town. He was also a naturalist, poet, illustrator, and lecturer. Although he had no formal education, Brown was known by many as Professor Brown.

This petition to the Smithsonian Board of Regents on behalf of Solomon G. Brown, a clerk, for a promotion at the Smithsonian. An unidentified group of African Americans in Brown's neighborhood believed that Brown, who was very active in the community, was being passed up for a promotion he deserved.

Home Sweet Housing: Creating a Unique Enclosure for a Historic Photograph

Smithsonian Institution Archives

Younger Family, relatives of the first African American employee of the Smithsonian, Solomon Brown, Image ID# SIA2015-001266.

When the Archives received a photograph of the Youngers, relatives of the first African American employee of the Smithsonian, Solomon Brown, time had taken its toll on the image. The early gelatin print is mounted on a friable board reminiscent of the material used by the Government Printing Office to create covers for its publications—a mid-gray paper sandwiched around an acidic core that has turned a straw color with acid deterioration. The brittle nature of the photograph and its support has allowed the image to crack completely in half, with small pieces flaking away from the breakage point. Handwritten notes on the back in permanent marker are mostly legible despite losses of the acidic backing. There is also damage evident on the lower portion of the photograph, possibly from another document becoming stuck to it in the presence of water, a phenomenon known as blocking. The top and bottom edges of the photograph and support are also curling upward as differences in expansion and contraction of the two materials have become evident. While we don’t know when exactly this photograph was taken, based on the style of clothing it can be tentatively dated to the early years of the twentieth century.

Solomon G. Brown, by Unknown, 1891, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, SA-754 and SIA2007-0039.

A fragile item such as this requires special care and handling to ensure that it endures as a part of our collections. In order to protect it both while it is in collections storage and being used by researchers, a custom housing was designed and created. The solution had to meet a few specific criteria: it needed to provide adequate support to the broken photograph; it needed to facilitate easy removal of the image from its housing without excessive abrasion to the fragile edges; and it needed to restrain the curling edges of the support.

The end result is a housing composed of three elements—a base in which the photograph sits, a magnetic over-mat that gently restrains the curling edges of the image, and a protective cover mat. The base is also composed of three layers, divided into two pieces that fit together like puzzle pieces with tongue-and-groove joints. This allows the photograph to be securely held in the housing or easily removed without abrading the edges, by sliding the pieces together or apart. The overall size of the housing was chosen to fit snugly inside one of our standard-size flat archival storage boxes for extra protection and safe handling.

 

Diagram of Solomon Brown photograph housing showing construction process. Image by William Bennett.

 

 

Diagram of Solomon Brown photograph housing, side view. Image by William Bennett.

 

Brief sidebar: A complex housing like this may seem difficult to justify for the average photograph in a collection. While this image is not average, in reality creating this housing was straightforward and relatively quick to execute. Most of the time and effort was spent prototyping different elements and testing components, particularly the strength of the magnetic attraction in the over-mat. Constructing another housing from this model would take much less time and could be completed in a regular work day.

Assembling the housing

Transferring the outline of the photograph to the top layer of the base to create a snug fit. Photo by William Bennett.The three layers of the base are made from E-flute corrugated board. The bottom layer is cut in two pieces so that approximately one-third of the board is above the cut and two-thirds are below, with the flutes of the corrugated board running horizontally. The middle layer is composed of six vertically-cut strips, the flutes running vertically. Each strip is cut in two to create the tongue-and-groove joints described above, alternating approximately one inch above or below the cut in the bottom layer. To facilitate easy joining of the two pieces, the teeth of each joint are slightly tapered. The top layer is cut in two, mirroring the bottom; the photograph sits in this layer, atop the other two, in a sort of tray. To accommodate the image, the mounted photograph was placed on a light table and the shape traced onto Mylar, then transferred to the top layer and cut out. All three layers are laminated together with ¾-inch double-sided adhesive tape. A miniature facsimile of the reverse of the photograph mount is included in the lower right corner of the base, to provide access to the information without necessitating the removal of the photo.

Recessing the steel shim into the reverse of the magnetic over-mat. Photo by William Bennett.The next piece, the magnetic over-mat, is fashioned simply by cutting a window with a mat cutter from archival matboard of the same dimensions as the base. Rare-earth neodymium magnets are sunk into the top layer of the base, four each along the top and bottom edges of the photograph tray, and adhered with Jade R PVA, an acrylic adhesive. Space was created for the magnets using a Japanese screw punch. The magnets are set back from the edge to avoid contact with the photograph, and further isolated and secured with strips of gummed paper tape atop the magnets. Corresponding steel shim strips are recessed along the edges of the window on the reverse of the over-mat and adhered with the same acrylic adhesive. The mat is attached to the base with a V-shaped hinge made from gummed linen tape at the top edge.

Finally, a protective cover mat was created from blue corrugated board cut to the same dimensions as the other two components. This was attached with the same gummed linen tape used with the magnetic over-mat, with a difference: instead of a V-shaped hinge, the tape was applied to the exterior of the housing from the bottom of the base and wrapping around to the top of the cover mat. This left the edges free, allowing the cover mat to fold completely flat behind the base for display or consultation.

 

Completed housing with the magnetic components clearly visible. Photo by William Bennett.

 

With the housing complete, the photograph is securely held and adequately protected. The blue cover mat prevents damage to the surface of the image; the magnetic over-mat gently restrains the curling edges of the image so that further distortion is discouraged; and the base provides stable support, even when sliding the pieces apart to remove the image when necessary. This important addition to the history of one of the Smithsonian’s earliest employees will be safely available for future researchers.

 

Related Resources

Solomon Brown: First African American Employee at the Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Institution Archives. 

Preserve It While You Use It: Collections Care in Action, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Mounting Photographs with Earth Magnets, The Bigger Picture Blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Staff, International Exchange Service, 1891

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Pictures 85-16318 and 82-3382 were taken the same day, but in front of the Smithsonian Institution Building's East Door.

Staff of the International Exchange Service gathered under a tree on the grounds of the Smithsonian for their picture. Seated (L-R): George Boehmer, William C. Winlock, Ferdinand V. Berry; Standing (L-R): Edward D. Hardy, Morsell A. Tolson, George L. Snider; Thomas Watkins, Mazie R. Fountaine, Henry A. Parker, John S. Pollock, Oliver C. Hine, George C. French, Coates W. Shoemaker, Solomon G. Brown. Established in 1848, the International Exchange Service, administered by the Smithsonian Institution, disseminated scientific publications to scholarly institutions both in the United States and abroad.

Staff, International Exchange Service, 1891

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
In this image, which is very similar to Neg. #77-15013, M. A. Tolson is sitting on the ground and G. C. French is lying on the ground.

Staff of the International Exchange Service gathered under a tree on the grounds of the Smithsonian for their picture. Seated (L-R): Morsell A. Tolson, George H. Boehmer, William C. Winlock, and G. C. French; Standing (L-R): Edward D. Hardy, Coates. W. Shoemaker, George L. Snider; Thomas Watkins, Mazie R. Fountaine, Henry A. Parker, John S. Pollock, Oliver C. Hine, Solomon G. Brown. Established in 1848, the International Exchange Service, administered by the Smithsonian Institution, disseminated scientific publications to scholarly institutions both in the United States and abroad.

International Exchange Service, c. 1905

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
The International Exchange Service in the basement of the Smithsonian Institution Building, the "Castle," with Henry Parker, Solomon G. Brown, and Ferdinand V. Berry, Chief Clerk. Established in 1848, the International Exchange Service, administered by the Smithsonian Institution, disseminated scientific publications to scholarly institutions both in the United States and abroad.

"Smithsonian Honors a Black Pioneer" News Clipping

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Article describing the 100th Anniversary of the groundbreaking for the National Museum of Natural History building event honoring Solomon G. Brown, the first African American employee of the Smithsonian Institution. Clipping from the June 16, 2004, print edition of the Washington Post.

International Exchange Service Staff

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
Original photograph has legend indicating each person in photograph. See also 77-15013 for staff photograph on the grounds of the Smithsonian. Also featured in RU371, B2, January 1978 TORCH; Field, Stamm & Ewing, THE CASTLE: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE SMITHSONIAN BUILDING (p. 41).

Staff of the Bureau of International Exchanges, later the International Exchange Service, gathered on the steps of the east entrance of the Smithsonian Institution Building on July 10, 1891. 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.
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