Edward Wellington Brown

Edward Wellington Brown (d. 1929)

Edward Wellington Brown was a politician, editor, and minister. Born into slavery, he became his church's clerk at age twelve and later taught school in Prince George County. Brown was among the last successful African American politicians in the nineteenth century, serving as the county's commissioner of revenue from 1887 to 1895. He moved to Richmond the year after he left office, where he worked for the Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers, a fraternal beneficiary organization. Eventually becoming editor of its weekly newspaper, the Reformer, Brown promoted the order's various enterprises while condemning the new segregation laws. The organization's finances collapsed in 1910, causing the removal of its officers. Brown became a Baptist preacher, but left the ministry in the mid-1920s to join his son's real estate and insurance agency in Norfolk. He died in 1929. MORE...

 

Brown was born into slavery in Southampton County, the son of Edward Brown and Euseba Clements Brown. Accounts of his early life are vague and inconsistent. Various reference works give dates of birth ranging from 1860 to 1878, with later birth years given as his life progressed. During his second year as commissioner of revenue for Prince George County in 1888, he signed his reports "Edward Willie Brown." He may have adopted the middle name himself.

Brown's father died before the end of the American Civil War (1861–1865). His maternal grandparents, who had acquired some education during slavery, encouraged him to attend a local school at Drewrysville. Brown studied under John Wesley Cromwell, a pioneer black teacher, and after joining the local Baptist church he became close to Joseph Gregory, its pastor and a political activist. The church elected Brown its clerk when he was only twelve years old. With his obvious potential he received encouragement to continue his education. Brown studied at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) from 1878 to 1880 and then accepted a teaching post in Prince George County.

In addition to teaching, Brown at various times engaged in farming and operated a store. He also entered politics and on May 26, 1887, was elected county commissioner of revenue as part of the successful Republican ticket. The next year Brown abandoned party regularity to support the independent Republican candidacy of John Mercer Langston for Congress, but he returned to the fold in time for reelection as commissioner of revenue, thus becoming one of the few African Americans who held public office into the 1890s. Despite the county's black majority, white Democrats finally regained control over the ballot box, and Brown lost his bid for reelection in May 1895. On December 27, 1894, he married Nannie Ruffin Allen, a native of Prince George County. They had one daughter and one son, George William Clement Brown, who became a noted educator.

Brown moved his family to Richmond after the 1895–1896 school term concluded. He planned to study medicine but accepted work as a clerk at the savings bank of the Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers, a fraternal beneficiary organization. Brown had been a charter member of a fountain, as local lodges were called, in Prince George County in 1889. The order sent him to Southampton County, where he organized five fountains. In May 1897 Brown succeeded John Henry Smyth as editor of the order's weekly newspaper, the Reformer, which was published in Richmond.

Only two issues of the four-page paper from Brown's tenure are known to survive. They show that the activities of the True Reformers filled the news columns. Brown's editorials boosted the order's various enterprises while condemning the new segregation laws and anti-Negro prejudice, but his was a conservative editorial voice by comparison with the Richmond Planet. In 1898 the Reformer counted a circulation of 5,800, and even more people probably read it at the order's many lodges throughout the eastern United States. As did many other small newspapers, the Reformer also operated a printing shop, at which Brown's brother Benjamin R. Brown worked.

In 1910 the True Reformers' bank went into receivership, and the order's finances collapsed. Unlike several of the other officers, Brown was not charged with criminal offenses, but he shared in the general discredit. Members attempting to save the order ousted all of the officers in August 1911, and he left the newspaper. Brown's wife had died in September 1905, and on October 18, 1906, he married Minnie Odessa White, daughter of the pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church, at which Brown was a lay leader. Perhaps his new father-in-law convinced him to become an ordained minister. Brown served a Baptist church at Tappahannock until about 1917, when he became pastor of the First Baptist Church in the Brighton neighborhood of Portsmouth. He guided the congregation through construction of a new brick building in 1918 but left the ministry in the mid-1920s to join his son's real estate and insurance agency in Norfolk. Brown suffered a stroke and died in Norfolk on September 15, 1929. He was buried in Richmond.

Time Line

  • ca. 1860 - Edward Wellington Brown is born into slavery in Southampton County, the son of Edward Brown and Euseba Clements Brown.
  • 1878–1880 - Edward Wellington Brown studies at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute before accepting a teaching post in Prince George County.
  • May 26, 1887 - Running as a Republican, Edward Wellington Brown is elected county commissioner of Prince George County.
  • 1889 - Edward Wellington Brown joins the Prince George County fountain, or lodge, or the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, a fraternal beneficiary organization.
  • December 27, 1894 - Edward Wellington Brown marries Nannie Ruffin Allen, of Prince George County.
  • May 1895 - Running as a Republican, Edward Wellington Brown loses his bid for reelection to the post of county commissioner of Prince George County.
  • 1896 - Edward Wellington Brown moves his family from Prince George County to Richmond.
  • May 1897 - Edward Wellington Brown succeeds John Henry Smyth as editor of the Reformer, the weekly newspaper of the Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers.
  • 1898 - The Reformer, the weekly newspaper of the Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers, counts its circulation as 5,800.
  • September 1905 - Nannie Ruffin Allen, wife of Edward Wellington Brown, dies.
  • October 18, 1906 - Edward Wellington Brown marries Minnie Odessa White.
  • October 20, 1910 - The Virginia State Corporation Commission closes the doors of the Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers after a member is caught embezzling more than $50,000 from member deposits, and several businesses default on a series of large unsecured loans that the bank cannot pay.
  • August 1911 - Edward Wellington Brown resigns as editor of the Reformer, the weekly newspaper of the Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers, when, during a financial crisis, many of the organization's officers are ousted. Brown is not charged with any criminal wrongdoing.
  • 1917 - Edward Wellington Brown becomes pastor of the First Baptist Church in the Brighton neighborhood of Portsmouth. He will leave the ministry in the mid-1920s to work with his son in real estate.
  • September 15, 1929 - Edward Wellington Brown suffers a stroke and dies in Norfolk. He is buried in Richmond.
Further Reading
Barnes, Lelia Lawrence. The Best of Brighton … As I Remember. Portsmouth: Praise and Promise Publications, Inc., 1988.
Fahey, David M. The Black Lodge in White America: "True Reformer" Browne and His Economic Strategy. Dayton: Wayne State University Press, 1994.
Kneebone, John T. "Brown, Edward Wellington." In Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 290–291. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Kneebone, J. T., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Edward Wellington Brown (d. 1929). (2013, August 14). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Brown_Edward_Wellington_d_1929.

  • MLA Citation:

    Kneebone, John T. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Edward Wellington Brown (d. 1929)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 14 Aug. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: April 18, 2013 | Last modified: August 14, 2013


Contributed by John T. Kneebone and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John T. Kneebone is associate professor and chair of the history department at Virginia Commonwealth University.