ENTRY

Brown, George O. (1852–1910)

SUMMARY

George O. Brown established a family-run photography studio that recorded African American life in Richmond for seventy years. Brown, probably born enslaved, was working in the photography business by age nineteen old. He opened his own studio in 1899 and moved it to Jackson Ward, the center of Richmond’s African American community, in 1905. Two years later his skills earned him a silver medal at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition. Along with his children, Brown became the most important visual chronicler of Richmond’s African American population, documenting community life at schools, colleges, sporting events, and fraternal meetings. The studio took thousands of portraits of ordinary citizens and famed figures such as Maggie Lena Walker and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Brown died in 1910, but his photography business continued to operate until 1969.

Richmond Photograph Gallery and Law Office

Brown was born in August 1852 in Orange County, the son of Willis Brown and Winnie Brown. According to family tradition the family was enslaved and may have changed its surname after emancipation. Sometime after the American Civil War (1861–1865) the family moved to Richmond. He was probably the George Brown who was baptized and joined Ebenezer Baptist Church on May 7, 1871. Brown opened an account at the local bank of the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company on March 23, 1872. The bank records identify him as working in a photographic gallery. Most likely Brown learned photography on the job at one of Richmond’s busy studios. By 1879 he was working at the photographic gallery of George W. Davis.

On July 21, 1881, Brown married Bettie G. Mason, a teacher at Navy Hill School in Richmond. They had two sons and two daughters, but two children did not survive infancy. About 1888 they moved into a house near Ebenezer Baptist Church in Jackson Ward, the center of black residential, commercial, and cultural life in Richmond. In 1895 Brown signed a three-year partnership agreement with Rebecca P. Farley to operate the Jefferson Fine Art Gallery. Farley’s husband James Conway Farley had also worked as a photographer for G. W. Davis, and he joined forces with Brown in operating the new studio. Brown had been the head photographic printer at Davis’s gallery and continued that specialty with his new partner. By 1899 Brown had opened his own studio, the Old Dominion Gallery, on East Broad Street, and in 1905 he moved his enterprise to 603 North Second Street in the heart of Jackson Ward.

Gallery of Photographs by The Browns Studio

  • Printing Press for the St. Luke Herald
    Printing Press for the St. Luke Herald

    Two African American men attend to a linotype machine used to print the St. Luke Herald, a newspaper produced by the Independent Order of Saint Luke, an African American fraternal organization in Richmond. Maggie Lena Walker, grand secretary of the Independent Order, established the newspaper in 1902 in order to spread news of the organization. 

    This photograph was taken in the early twentieth century by The Browns studio in Richmond, which chronicled the city's black community for several generations.

    Citation: Witherspoon Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center

  • World War I Veterans
    World War I Veterans

    African American veterans from World War I gather at Morris Cafeteria in Richmond on August 4, 1919. This photograph was taken by The Browns studio in Richmond, which chronicled the city's black community for several generations.

  • Maggie Walker and Staff Members of the Independent Order of Saint Luke
    Maggie Walker and Staff Members of the Independent Order of Saint Luke

    Maggie Lena Walker, grand secretary of the Independent Order of Saint Luke, an African American fraternal society, sits at center, second row from top, among staff members of the council office in Richmond. This photograph was taken in 1915 by The Browns studio in Richmond, which chronicled the city's black community for several generations.

    Citation: Witherspoon Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center

  • Two African American Children
    Two African American Children

    In a portrait taken by George W. Brown in the early twentieth century, two unidentified children stand next to a table. The older child, dressed in high button shoes, hat, and fur-trimmed coat, holds a piece of paper in her hand, while the younger child is posed with mortar and pestle, and a measured bottle partially filled with liquid. Although there is no caption with the photograph, the photographer may have intended to create a scene in which the younger child plays a pharmacist and the older child a customer. This photograph was made in Brown's photographic studio at 603 North Second Street in the Jackson Ward neighborhood in Richmond.  

  • James E. Jackson Jr.
    James E. Jackson Jr.

    Baby James E. Jackson Jr. is propped up against a furry blanket in this photograph taken at the Richmond photographic studio run by the George O. Brown family. Young Jackson would become the first African American Eagle Scout in the south.

  • African American Couple
    African American Couple

    An unidentified African American couple, the woman in pearls, the man in dark suit and tie, pose for a photograph taken at The Browns studio in Richmond, which chronicled the city's black community for several generations.

  • Unidentified Woman
    Unidentified Woman

    An unidentified woman stands next to a chair in this photo-postcard by George W. Brown, a photographer whose family studio was located at 603 North Second Street in the heart of the Jackson Ward neighborhood in Richmond. The Browns studio chronicled the city's black community for several generations.

  • Two Unidentified Men
    Two Unidentified Men

    In a photo-postcard made by George W. Brown sometime between 1906 to 1910, two unidentified African American men pose with cigarettes in their hands. The Browns photo studio was located at 603 North Second Street in the heart of the Jackson Ward neighborhood in Richmond. The studio chronicled the city's black community for several generations.

  • Virginia Union University Drama Production
    Virginia Union University Drama Production

    Student actors in costume enact a scene from William Shakepeare's The Merchant of Venice in a production at Virginia Union University about 1920. This photograph was taken by George Brown of The Browns photo studio, which chronicled the city's black community for several generations. The photograph was taken by either the son or grandson of the studio's founder, George O. Brown.

    Citation: Witherspoon Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center

  • Armstrong High School Woodworking Class
    Armstrong High School Woodworking Class

    A teacher (at back) supervises students in a woodworking class at Arnmstrong High School, the first African American public school in Richmond. This photograph was taken about 1915 by George Brown of The Browns photo studio, which chronicled the city's black community for several generations. The photograph was taken by either the son or grandson of the studio's founder, George O. Brown.

    Citation: Witherspoon Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center

  • Office of the Principal of Armstrong High School
    Office of the Principal of Armstrong High School

    W. W. Townsend, principal of Armstrong High School in Richmond, sits at his roll top desk in his office. Two secretaries assist the prinicpal with his work.This image was taken about 1930 by George Brown of The Browns photo studio, which chronicled the city's black community for several generations. The photograph was taken by either the son or grandson of the studio's founder, George O. Brown.

    Citation: Witherspoon Collection, Valentine Richmond History Center

Brown’s two children who reached adulthood, Bessie Gwendola Brown and George Willis Brown, joined the family business. The Browns, whose slogan was “Makers of Portraits That Please,” became the most important visual chroniclers of Richmond’s African American population, producing thousands of studio portraits and documenting community life at schools, sporting events, and fraternal meetings. The studio produced pictures for schools and institutions throughout the state, including Virginia Union University, Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute (later Virginia State University), Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University), Saint Paul’s Industrial School (later Saint Paul’s College) in Lawrenceville, and the Virginia Industrial School for Girls. The Richmond Planet and its successor, the Richmond Afro-American, frequently ran images by the Browns. The quality of Brown’s work brought into his studio such notable Virginians as the banker and entrepreneur Maggie Lena Mitchell Walker and the dancer and film star Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, but for the most part his images documented the everyday experience of African Americans, capturing weddings, funerals, country church congregations, and other typical scenes. The photographs are readily identifiable by the studio mark “The Browns.” In 1907 Brown won a silver medal for his photographs at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition, and the studio depicted the award in its advertisements.

George O. Brown died in Richmond on May 17, 1910. He owned a plot in Union Sycamore Cemetery, one of the Barton Heights cemeteries, and was most likely buried there. The family business that Brown founded continued to thrive for almost sixty years after his death. George Willis Brown died on May 10, 1946, but Bessie Gwendola Brown, who lived with her brother’s widow, operated the studio until 1969. Bessie Gwendola Brown died on December 28, 1977. George Willis Brown Jr. worked for a short time with his father and aunt but left after disagreements about the operation of the firm. One of his two sons, Albert Wilder Brown, worked as a photographer from 1982 until his death in 2009.

George O. Brown’s legacy and his pioneering role as a photographer are reflected in recent interest in his work. Exhibitions on African American photographers at the Smithsonian Institution and at Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African-American History have featured his photographs. Richmond’s Valentine Museum (later Valentine Richmond History Center) has also exhibited photographs and equipment from the Brown studio and owns several collections of photographs that include numerous examples of the studio’s work both before and after his death.

MAP
TIMELINE
August 1852
George O. Brown is born in Orange County, the son of Willis Brown and Winnie Brown.
May 7, 1871
George O. Brown is probably baptized at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Richmond.
1879
By this year, George O. Brown is working at the photographic gallery of George W. Davis.
July 21, 1881
George O. Brown marries Bettie G. Mason. They will have two sons and two daughters.
1895
In this year, George O. Brown signs a three-year partnership agreement with Rebecca P. Farley to operate the Jefferson Fine Art Gallery.
1899
By this year, George O. Brown has opened his own studio, the Old Dominion Gallery, on East Broad Street in Richmond.
1907
In this year, George O. Brown wins a silver medal for his photographs at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition.
May 17, 1910
George O. Brown dies in Richmond.
FURTHER READING
  • Kimball, Gregg D. “Brown, George O.” In Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 291–292. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
  • Tyler-McGraw, Marie. At the Falls: Richmond, Virginia, and Its People. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
  • Willis, Deborah. Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Kimball, Gregg. Brown, George O. (1852–1910). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/brown-george-o-1852-1910.
MLA Citation:
Kimball, Gregg. "Brown, George O. (1852–1910)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 29 Jul. 2021
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