ENTRY

Brown, Edward W. (d. 1929)

SUMMARY

Edward W. 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.

Edward Wellington 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.

Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute

  • Church and Academic Hall
    Church and Academic Hall

    A photograph of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) shows the school's chapel, with its 150-foot clock tower, and an academic building at right. The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Hampton Students Working on Telephones
    Hampton Students Working on Telephones

    Students repair and construct telephones in a class at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Students Studying Agricultural Science
    Students Studying Agricultural Science

    Students at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) measure the amount of force being applied by the screws in cheese presses. This exercise was part of the curriculum devoted to agricultural science. The message on the blackboard behind the class reads in part, "In all its effects, learning the meaning of things is better than learning the meaning of words." The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Indian Wearing Traditional Clothing in American History Class
    Indian Wearing Traditional Clothing in American History Class

    Louis Firetail of the Crow Creek Sioux tribe wears traditional clothing and stands next to a bald eagle in an American history class at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University). The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Class in Liberal Arts and Sciences
    Class in Liberal Arts and Sciences

    Students at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) mold clay to mimic objects hanging from easels attached to their desks. This exercise was part of a liberal arts and sciences class. The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

  • Constructing a House
    Constructing a House

    Students at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University) work to finish the interior of a house that they built largely by themselves. The institute was founded in 1868 to educate the formerly enslaved; within a decade the education of Native Americans also became part of the school's mission. This carefully composed image was taken in 1899 or 1900 by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a well-known photographer from Washington, D.C. Johnston was commissioned by the school's second principal, Hollis Burke Frissell, to document the institute and its students for the Paris Exposition of 1900.

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, G. W. C. Brown, who became a noted educator.

Reformer Department

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 H. 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.

Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers

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.

MAP
TIMELINE
ca. 1860
Edward W. Brown is born into slavery in Southampton County, the son of Edward Brown and Euseba Clements Brown.
1878—1880
Edward W. 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 W. Brown is elected county commissioner of Prince George County.
1889
Edward W. 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 W. Brown Nannie Ruffin Allen, of Prince George County, marry.
May 1895
Running as a Republican, Edward W. Brown loses his bid for reelection to the post of county commissioner of Prince George County.
1896
Edward W. Brown moves his family from Prince George County to Richmond.
May 1897
Edward W. 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 W. Brown, dies.
October 18, 1906
Edward W. Brown and Minnie Odessa White marry.
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 W. 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 W. 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 W. 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, John. Brown, Edward W. (d. 1929). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/brown-edward-w-d-1929.
MLA Citation:
Kneebone, John. "Brown, Edward W. (d. 1929)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 22 Oct. 2021
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