Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from A-E

Browne, Hugh M.(1851–1923) - Educator, civil rights activist, minister, Critiques Liberian Systems and Experiences Controversy

washington education school african

Hugh M. Browne was an influential educator and creative thinker whose ideas were a part of the early development of African American education and civil rights. Although Browne was a contemporary of both Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, his philosophical positions marked a middle ground between Washington’s advocacy of industrial education for the masses and Du Bois’s advocacy for classical, liberal education to develop the “talented tenth” for leadership and stronger agitation for political and civil rights.

Hugh Mason Browne was born in June 1851 into a prominent free Negro family in Washington, D.C. His parents, John and Elizabeth Wormley Browne, and other relatives were established members of the local black elite as a result of their entrepreneurial, educational, and political activities in the nation’s capital.

After receiving his early education in the local colored public school system, Browne attended Howard University, graduating with a B.A. in 1875 and an M.A. in 1878. He also received a B.D. degree from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1878 and was ordained for ministry in the Presbyterian Church.

During the next two years Browne traveled to Germany and Scotland and pursued additional studies, then returned to the United States to pastor Shiloh Presbyterian Church in New York City for a brief period. In August 1883 he went to Liberia where he was appointed to a professorship in intellectual and moral philosophy at Liberia College. While in the country he learned about the challenges involved in assimilation of former slaves into an African setting and about the problems and cultural differences affecting Liberian social, economic, and educational development.

Theoretical and intellectual, Browne was nonetheless committed to practical application of ideas to specific needs. While he commanded the respect of more well-known thinkers and leaders such as Washington and Du Bois, Browne also spent time turning abstract ideas into tangible inventions in the manner of George Washington Carver or Elijah McCoy. He was credited with patenting a device for preventing back flow of water in cellars on April 29, 1890, and cited in the July 8, 1893 issue of The Colored American , which included “a partial list of patents granted by the U.S. for inventions by colored persons.”

Critiques Liberian Systems and Experiences Controversy

In 1896 Browne commented that the Americo-Liberian education and economic development was totally dependent on U.S. paternalism and goodwill and other foreign influences and based primarily on outside interest in the country’s natural resources. He pointed to the lack of effective Liberian leadership in developing the country’s own cultural, political, and economic infrastructure to address ongoing issues and concerns, prophetic statements which were borne out in the country during the twentieth century.

Although Browne addressed these problems by developing a plan to reorganize educational and administrative systems, his candor created personal difficulties. Edward Wilmot Blyden, principal of the college, distrusted Browne after he publicly criticized Liberian culture, which added to existing problems with the Liberian government. As a result, Blyden restricted Browne’s academic freedom by preventing him from teaching.

Resumes Academic Career in United States

Browne returned to Washington after nearly two years in West Africa and taught physics for the next two years at the Colored Preparatory and M Street High School in his hometown. Next, he taught at Hampton Institute in Virginia from 1898 to 1901, then served as principal of Colored High School in Baltimore, Maryland. In each of these settings, Browne sought to improve educational systems and services to African Americans through a balanced approach of theory and practice, academic with industrial training, and equal development of the mind and body through intellectual stimulation and physical education.

In 1902, Browne married Julia Shadd Purnell, a widow and member of another prominent Washington family, and the couple moved to Philadelphia where Browne became the principal of the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY). The original name of the school, the African Institute, was changed shortly after it was founded in 1837 with support from the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Browne served as the fourth principal of ICY, overseeing the relocation of the school from Philadelphia to Cheyney Station, Pennsylvania, on farmland formerly owned by the Cheyney family, prominent white supporters of Negro education. Matthew Anderson of Philadelphia assisted Browne during this transition. During his tenure as principal, Browne developed the first campus buildings, invited Booker T. Washington to speak at the formal dedication of the new campus in 1905, and secured funding for Andrew Carnegie Hall, the school’s first library.

Browne maintained contacts and correspondence with Washington, Du Bois, writer Charles Chesnutt, and other prominent African Americans, and was a key participant in the January 1904 conference of African American leaders convened by Washington at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Documentation of the conference proceedings indicates that Browne was one of the signers of a resolution establishing the Committee of Safety, twelve men who would serve as a national information bureau on racial concerns, work toward cooperation among various African American organizations, and facilitate communications among African Americans in various regions and sections of the country.

Washington, Du Bois, and Browne were appointed as the first three members of the Committee of Safety and given authorization to select the other nine members. Du Bois eventually broke with Washington regarding white influence over the conference, Washington’s control of the committee and organization, and other major differences of opinion. Browne remained as secretary of the committee until 1913 and a confidant of Washington while not subscribing wholeheartedly to his social and educational philosophies.

Browne was widely respected for his leadership of ICY and other intellectual endeavors until his retirement in 1913. His successor, Leslie P. Hill, became the last principal of ICY and first president when it was renamed the Cheyney Training School for Teachers in 1914. After additional transitions and name changes, the present Cheyney University of Pennsylvania was recognized as the oldest of the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).


1851 Born in Washington, D.C. in June

1875 Receives B.A. degree from Howard University

1878 Receives M.A. from Howard and B.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary; also ordained for ministry in Presbyterian Church

1883 Becomes professor of philosophy at Liberia College in Africa

1886 Returns to United States to teach high school physics in Washington, D.C.

1890 Receives U.S. patent for device preventing water backflow in cellars

1898 Assumes faculty position at Hampton Institute in Virginia

1901 Becomes principal of high school in Baltimore, Maryland

1902 Marries Julia Shadd Purnell; becomes principal of the Institute for Colored Youth (ICY) in Philadelphia

1903 Supervises relocation of ICY to Cheyney, Pennsylvania

1904 Participates in January conference of African American leaders at Carnegie Hall in New York

1908 Receives U.S. patent for device regulating furnace dampers

1913 Retires from ICY; travels to Germany to study vocational education

1923 Dies in Washington, D.C. on October 30

Returning to his native Washington after spending time in Germany studying vocational education, Browne did not completely retire from work as an educator. He cast himself in yet another role as an educational engineer or consultant, until his death on October 30, 1923. The District of Columbia Board of Education honored Browne posthumously when the Hugh M. Browne Junior High School was erected in 1932. The school survived through decades of change to become a nationally recognized institution, successfully incorporating many of the concepts of its namesake into the twenty-first century.

Browne, Jackson [next] [back] Brown v. Board of Education - THE RESEGREGATION DECISIONS, CRITICISMS OF THE BROWN DECISION

User Comments

Your email address will be altered so spam harvesting bots can't read it easily.
Hide my email completely instead?

Cancel or

Vote down Vote up

over 6 years ago

The comments of Mr. Brown about Liberia's dependence on foreign support for nearly everything was a prophetic observation that continues to hunt that country to this very day. This can be partly attributed to what Prof. D. Elwood Dunn, a liberian scholar refers to as the "potted pot syndrom"; the inability of the Americo-Liberians to adopt and embrace their new country and its culture. This strangle hold of the Americo-Liberians over the rest of the country remains as true today as it was in 1894.

Vote down Vote up

over 6 years ago

Mr. Browne's work in Liberia, West Africa is as relevant to as it was in the past(1896). Browne was a visionary. His work ethics and committment to social justice is unsurpassed.

Jerome Gayman

A Liberian, residing in Fort Pierce, FL