JUNE 2004 - - 100 .Years Ago

The Golden Rule - Do Unto Others


In a grove of doomed trees on the National Mall on June 15, 1904, Smithsonian Secretary Samuel P. Langley took his turn with a shovel before handing it to other officials in a ceremony that marked the beginning of construction of a state-of-the-art museum—today’s National Museum of Natural History. But one man to take up the shovel that day had already broken new ground. Solomon G. Brown, 75, the Smithsonian’s first African-American employee, had been hired as a cabinetmaker in 1852 shortly after the Institution was founded. Over a 52-year career, he had become a scientific illustrator, a naturalist and a lecturer before the city’s scientific societies. On this day he was thinking about the trees gracing the National Mall where the museum would be built. Their imminent destruction was “felt keenly by this old man,” the Washington Post reported in its story on the ceremony. Brown could remember when French flowering cherry trees and towering cedars and mulberry trees were planted by landscape artist Andrew Jackson Downing in 1850. “It seems a pity that any should have to be cut down,” he told the newspaper. Brown would retire from the Smithsonian in February 1906 and die four months later at the age of 77. This month, on the 100th anniversary of the groundbreaking, the Natural History Museum will plant a tree in the name of Solomon G. Brown.

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