Imagine having to prove you were born free of involuntary servitude – and living with the possibility that freedom could be revoked at any moment. How would it feel to be free while others like you remained in bondage? Imagine witnessing the horrors of the Civil War, as the president fights to save his precious union, weaponizing the liberation of your people in the process. That was the reality of Solomon G. Brown, a black man born in 1829 Washington, D.C. A man who saw the Smithsonian through its formative years while praying, organizing and fighting for African American advancement before and after the abolishment of slavery.
Solomon G. Brown was first hired at the Smithsonian in 1852 and quickly worked his way into a supervisory position. During his 54 years of employment under the first three Smithsonian secretaries, his duties and contributions were many and varied. While his official title progressed from general laborer to museum assistant and finally clerk, he has been described as a Renaissance Man. Undoubtedly, his service at the museum lent to its early and long-term success. By the time he retired in 1906, he had served the National Museum, the International Exchange Service, the Bureau of American Ethnology and the National Zoological Park.
One of his early tasks related to natural history was building exhibit cases for the museum. In doing this work, Brown developed an enthusiasm for natural history and began educating himself in the discipline. Eventually, he would begin illustrating maps and specimens for the lectures of Smithsonian secretary Spencer F. Baird. Later, he would share his knowledge with the people of his community through talks of his own. This naturalist, illustrator and lecturer would be nicknamed Professor Brown despite being denied formal education or training.
His talent also extended to creative writing. As a poet, he expressed his views of religion, society and nature. His appreciation for natural history collection, surely influenced by his work at the Smithsonian, is shown in this excerpt from a piece commemorating his 50 years of service at the institution (italics added for emphasis):
“Many I’ve known are dead and gone
Many are here who’ve since been born;
Some’s resigned and changed their home
Others through foreign countries roam,
And these are –
–Sending gems to you and me
They’ve gathered from the land and sea
These, too, were young, now growing old;
But many facts are yet untold,
To be revealed by others.”
Through his writings and extracurricular activities, it becomes clear that Brown was a multifaceted man. He was a politically engaged philosopher and activist serving in leadership roles in the church and was elected to the D.C. house of delegates among other appointments. He was passionate about increasing access to education and opportunities for African Americans. His feelings about the sociopolitical climate of the time was a frequent theme of his writing as illustrated in his poem entitled “He is a negro still.” This excerpt from the piece seems to express his perception of the irrationality of Black subjugation based on race, despite their contributions to society:
“Suppose he has inventive art,
The world acknowledge he is smart,
Intelligent and fills the bill?
He’s nothing but a Negro still.”
At the conclusion of the poem he expresses the resolve to thrive despite such opposition:
“Here is a fact you cannot hide,
The Blackman is our country’s pride;
May twist and turn it as you will—
The Negro is your brother still.
This fact he loves above the rest,
While it disturbs the white man’s rest;
Twist and turn it as you may,
The Negro’s here, HE’S HERE TO STAY!”
Brown had likely felt these kinds of sentiments leveraged against himself throughout his life, but might he have experienced moments like these at the museum? The correspondence archived at the Smithsonian Institution between Brown and secretary Baird suggest an overall comfortable, even friendly working relationship, to the point that Brown felt he could advocate for a cost of living raise on a date preceding the abolishment of slavery. What an extraordinary privilege for a Black man in those times! However, was everyone in that community kind, welcoming and respectful of the remarkable Professor Brown? Or to some, was he a Negro still?
This is a reality for many colleagues in academic spaces today. In the absence of a sense of belonging, feelings of imposter syndrome and stereo type threat are exacerbated. Knowledge of the treatment of our ancestors and predecessors in these spaces make some of us wary of our colleague’s respect for us. Accusations of unfair advantages we hold due to affirmative action and reverse discrimination undermine our excellence and qualifications. Oppositions to diversity, equity and inclusion efforts based on the idea these will somehow undermine the rigor of science ignore the legacy of uncredited contributions that Black peoples have already made to scientific advancement. Though some of us persevere, many leave these spaces and justifiably so, mentally and emotionally exhausted from fighting these institutionalized obstacles. Self-reflect, step out of the way, and let this generation of Black and Indigenous natural historians contribute to making the world better.