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Born on February 14, 1829 in Washington D.C., Solomon Brown was the fourth of six children born to Isaac and Rachel Brown, both ex-slaves. Brown worked with Samuel Morse on the telegraph machine, which revolutionized communication in the 19th century. Brown also installed the wires and made sure the telegraph worked properly.
Brown was born a free Black, because both of his parents were free as well. The family resided in Washington, D.C., living on very modest means. Brown was deprived of formal education because when his father died in 1833, his mother was left defenseless against creditors who made false claims of indebtedness on the family’s estate. The year after Brown’s father died, bill collectors seized all of his family’s property and left the family destitute.
Due to this setback, Solomon was unable to attain a formal education. At the age of fifteen, he began working at the Washington, D.C. post office where he was assigned to assist Joseph Henry and Samuel F.B. Morse on the installation of the first Morse telegraph line in the nation. Despite his youth, Brown was one of the technicians who helped set up the telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Brown continued to work for Samuel F.B. Morse for the next seven years.
Beginning in 1852 when Joseph Henry became first secretary of the newly opened Smithsonian Institution, he hired Brown as a general laborer, he was the first African American to be hired by the Smithsonian Institute. By 1864, Brown was a museum assistant, and by 1869, he was the registrar in charges of transportation, registry and storage of animal specimens and materials received by the institution. He also assisted in preparing maps and drawings for virtually all Smithsonian lectures between 1870 and 1887. Brown worked under the first three secretaries of the institution.
While at the Smithsonian, Brown educated himself in the field of natural history. His association with the Smithsonian provided him with a plethora of information, which he passed on to scientific societies in Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Alexandria, Virginia. In addition to his speaking engagements, Brown dedicated much of his time to poetry. He participated in readings throughout the Washington, D.C. area, and his poems were published in one of the leading African American newspapers of the day, the Washington Bee.
Brown was also an activist, volunteering in various civic and educational programs aimed at advancing African Americans. He was a trustee of Wilberforce University in Ohio and of the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. He founded the Pioneer Sabbath School in the city and was superintendent of the North Washington Mission Sunday School. In 1866, Brown was elected president of the National Union League, an important political organization for African Americans across the South. From 1871 to 1874, he served three consecutive one-year terms in the legislature of the District of Columbia.
On February 14, 1906, after 54 years of service at the Smithsonian Institute, Solomon Brown retired. He passed away in Washington, D.C. only a few months later on June 24, 1906.