The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Brown, Samuel Joe
(July 6, 1875–July 24, 1950)


Sue M. Brown

(September 8, 1877–1941)

–African American community activists – earned distinction as perhaps Iowa's most noted and effective civil rights leaders of th e first half of the 20th century.

    Like thousands of other African Americans, Sue (Wilson) Brown's parents, Jacob and Maria Wilson, came to Iowa to mine coal. Born in Staunton, Virginia, Sue arrived with her parents at the Muchakinock mining camp in Mahaska County near Oskaloosa. Sometime after graduating from Oskaloosa High School, she met S. Joe Brown.

    Joe had been born in Keosauqua, Iowa, to Elizabeth (Henderson) Brown and Lewis Brown. Lewis, a teamster, traced the family lineage to the original 20 slaves brought to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Moving north from Missouri, Joe's parents settled in a part of town called "Hangman's Hollow."His mother performed housework for white families, including several lawyers. She told Joe she hoped that he would become a lawyer someday. In 1885 the family moved to Ottumwa. By the time Joe was 14, both of his parents had died, and Joe began working as a bellboy in a hotel to pay his way through high school. He became the first African American to graduate from Ottumwa High School, where he excelled academically.

    A relative of one of Joe's high school teachers helped secure him a job in Iowa City and helped him gain admission to the State University of Iowa. By 1898 he had become the first African American to graduate with a liberal arts degree and to receive membership in Phi Beta Kappa. He had also begun studying law. Before finishing his legal studies, he became principal at a Muchakinock school. Joe stayed at Muchakinock a year–long enough to meet Sue–then moved to Marshall, Texas, for a one-year term as head of the departments of Greek and mathematics at all-black Bishop College. He then returned to the State University of Iowa to finish his law studies. While working at the same time as a fraternity house janitor, Joe graduated at the head of his class. He was one of the first African Americans to receive a law degree from the university.

    Fulfilling his mother's dream, Joe began his legal career in Buxton, working with noted black attorney George Woodson. With offices in Oskaloosa and Albia, they decided to expand into Des Moines, where the black population was increasing. Brown ran the Des Moines office and remained affiliated with Woodson for nearly 20 years. Meanwhile, he married Sue on New Year's Eve, 1902. They called Des Moines home for the rest of their lives. They never had children.

    Most of Joe's work involved civil, probate, and title matters. He did, however, appear in front of the Iowa Supreme Court in 1905 (the first African American to do so) and defended more than 30 clients who faced the death penalty; none were executed, and 10 were acquitted.

    The Browns together used legal recourse to challenge segregation in Des Moines in 1910. While attending a "Pure Food Show," Sue was refused a sample of coffee at a booth. Joe represented his wife, contending that the defendant, J. H Bell Company, had violated Iowa's Civil Rights Act of 1884. The Iowa Supreme Court, in a four-to-three decision, concurred with the defendant's view that the booth was not a public accommodation covered in the act. Joe did, however, win other discrimination cases.

    Joe was active in Des Moines' civic affairs. He was a member of the commission that drafted the nationally noted Des Moines Plan in 1907. He was also among the first African Americans to run for elected office. He lost bids for Polk County District Court judge in 1906 and a city council seat in 1910. As a legal organizer, Brown served as the first president of the Iowa Colored Bar Association, a forerunner to the National Bar Association, which incorporated in Des Moines in 1926 because the American Bar Association did not admit black lawyers. He was also one of the founders and board members of the Des Moines Interracial Commission in the 1920s.

    Joe often had to work within all-black organizations to uplift his race. These included his African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church and the Crocker Street Branch of the Des Moines Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), which was established near the Center Street neighborhood where most blacks resided in Des Moines, because African Americans were either not welcome or not allowed to go to other YMCA branches. Later in life he summarized his practical attitude toward segregation: "I know that there are many places in Des Moines in which I would not be welcome. I simply don't go to them."

    While her husband developed his legal career, Sue increasingly assumed leadership in the black community. From 1907 to 1909 she founded and published the Iowa Colored Woman, a monthly journal reporting news about the Iowa State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. She founded a welfare agency, the Richard Allen Aid Society, and served as a district superintendent of the AME Sunday school. She also was business manager for the National Association of Colored Women, attending its annual meetings around the country and coordinating the association's annual meeting in Des Moines in 1936. Through her association with that group, Sue became a close associate of Margaret Washington, wife of Booker T. Washington. After his death in 1915, Sue contacted one of America's preeminent black artists, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and arranged for him to paint a posthumous portrait of Booker T. Washington. She also took a leading part in preserving Frederick Douglass's house.

    The Browns' most lasting accomplishments were related to their role as organizers of the Des Moines branch of the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1915. Joe served as its first president, engaged in legal activities, and encouraged the formation of NAACP branches in other Iowa cities. Sue established the Junior Chapter of the Des Moines Branch and in 1925 was elected president of the Des Moines NAACP branch.

    At the same time that Joe and Sue helped develop the NAACP, she founded several other clubs designed to improve the lives of African Americans: the Intellectual Improvement Club, the Mary B. Talbert Club, the Iowa Colored Women, and the Des Moines League of Colored Women Voters after women received the vote in 1920. During World War I, Sue founded the Colonel Charles Young Auxiliary of the American Red Cross, named after America's most prominent black officer. She was the first vice president of the National League of Republican Colored Women. She was a grand matron of the African American branch of the Order of the Eastern Star and wrote the first history of that organization in 1925. She also oversaw the purchase and development of a home for black students at the State University of Iowa when dormitories would not admit African Americans. It became known as Sue M. Brown Hall.

    In 1941, 10 weeks after undergoing a spinal operation, Sue Brown died at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines. The funeral was one of the largest ever held at St. Paul AME church. In 1950 S. Joe Brown suffered a stroke and died in his Des Moines home several months later. The Des Moines Register aptly summarized his achievements: "He made his 75 years of life count.... He was always pressing for new "˜firsts' for Negroes, and making many of them himself, working year in and year out.... He lived to see the things he had founded grow... to see victories begin to pile up in the long battle for racial justice, which is still far from ended."
Sources include Bill Silag et al., eds., Outside In: African-American History in Iowa, 1838– 2000 (2001); Leola Nelson Bergmann, The Negro in Iowa (1969); Jack Lufkin, "The Founding and Early Years of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Des Moines, 1915–1930," Annals of Iowa 45 (1980), 439–61; Jack Lufkin, "Henry Tanner and Booker T. Washington: The Iowa Story Behind the Portrait," Palimpsest 72 (1991), 16–19; Who's Who in Colored America, 6th ed. (1941); and "From 'Hangman's Hollow' to a Chair of Greek and 46 Years at the Iowa Bar," typewritten manuscript at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, believed to be written by S. Joe Brown.
Contributor: Jack Lufkin