Edgar G. Brown: Firebrand, labor organizer, lobbyist, journalist, and tennis champion

Among the joys of being an archivist is the near-constant inundation with interesting facts and figures. One of the more interesting figures in recent memory is Edgar G. Brown, whose small collection of papers is held at the Amistad Research Center.

Born in Sandoval, Illinois, in 1898, Brown attended Northwestern University, which was interrupted by his service in the Army during World War I. After his service, he returned to Northwestern and graduated in economics and business. Upon graduation, he worked as an advertising manager of the Madame C. J. Walker Co., as an editor of the Standard News of St. Louis, and as an administrative assistant and editor of the Federal Security Agency in Washington.

Edgar Brown transitioned from his journalistic career into the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) with some assistance from his close confidant, Irvin H. McDuffie, who was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s valet. With the backing of President Roosevelt, Brown gained an administrative position in the CCC, where he served in the publicity section. Although hired primarily to report on activities of African Americans in CCC work camps, Brown also utilized his position to agitate for improved status of African American CCC workers, such as increasing their numbers as camp commanders and medical officers. Brown’s work with the CCC was likely to have culminated in the publication of a booklet, “The C.C. C. and Negro Youth,” but this was likely never published. Brown did publish a few brochures and press releases for the CCC, including “The Civilian Conservation Corps and Colored Youth.”

He quickly drew the ire of CCC director Robert Fechner, who complained to President Roosevelt that “Brown seems to be obsessed with the feeling that he should constitute himself the personal representative of every Negro in our C.C. C. organization.” Brown, as reported by Fechner to President Roosevelt, used his position with the CCC to call upon administrators at the Departments of War, Interior, and Agriculture to criticize the mistreatment or underemployment of African Americans in those federal agencies. Upon the cessation of the CCC in 1942, President Roosevelt again intervened with directors of the National Housing Agency and the Office of Price Administration to secure federal employment for Brown. Despite the President’s recommendation, and despite his role as a prominent member of Roosevelt’s famed “Black Cabinet,” Brown’s services were unwanted by both agencies.

While working as a federal employee, Brown was president of the United Government Employees, a federal workers’ union, from 1934 to 1943. Among his achievements include successfully working toward the elimination of photographs as a requirement in civil service examinations. Brown also worked to secure automatic promotions for federal custodial employees and campaigned successfully for the first language specifically prohibiting racial discrimination in a 1940 civil service law.

After working for the CCC, Brown founded and directed the National Negro Council, a political lobbying organization. As suggested in his Associated Negro Press obituary, this was a controversial organization: “Brown always maintained he was the head of the National Negro Council, an organization for which he collected funds at his many street corner gatherings. However, no one was ever able to obtain information about the group’s membership and officers. Nevertheless, he did maintain an office in Washington as official lobbyist of the organization.” Despite the controversy, Brown enjoyed one key triumph in his lobbying efforts. Brown mobilized a campaign in the 1940s to have the ignoble Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi removed from office. Brown claimed to have gathered over a million signatures on petitions for this cause.

Brown utilized unconventional means to broadcast his views, often acting as a street-corner orator or driving around in an automobile with a loud speaker, according to his obituary by the Associated Negro Press. He was called a “bearded forerunner of black power” by Chicago broadcaster and journalist Warner Saunders, who remembered Brown as the one Chicagoan most critical of racial discord in that city: “Edgar G. Brown, an exciting, fiery-tongued, street corner orator. I remember his soapbox decrying the white power structure and condemning the docility of blacks… Nearly all of his speeches had the same ending: Two burly, red-faced policemen giving him a free ride to jail.”

Edgar Brown was also a four-time singles champion of the American Tennis Association, in 1922, 1923, 1928, and 1929. He also co-founded and served as president of the National Lawn Tennis Association.

He twice campaigned unsuccessfully for the first Congressional district of Illinois in Chicago, running against the incumbent, William L. Dawson, who Brown referred to as the “Black Apologist.” In his campaign to unseat Dawson, Brown had the support of the Chicago Tribune. Brown died while taking part in the Republican primaries for Congress after sustaining a heart attack and crashing into a tree while driving his “sound truck.”

Though Edgar George Brown certainly deserves a more comprehensive biography, it has been fun to piece together a biography from the relics of his life well lived.

Posted by Andrew Salinas

(Image from the Edgar G. Brown papers, Amistad Research Center. Image may not be reproduced without permission.)

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