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The Complicated Legacy of James E. Brown (c. 1802–1853), Liberian Colonial Apothecary

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: From the Collections is a new feature at Points that highlights articles, artifacts, images, and other items of interest from AIHP publications and collections. In honor of Black History Month, Points Managing Editor Greg Bond revisits his two-part 2018 Pharmacy in History article about Liberian Colonial Apothecary James E. Brown. Read the full articles (Part 1 and Part 2) at JSTOR.

James Brown Ad

Colonial Apothecary James Brown’s 1834 advertisement in the Liberia Herald as reprinted in The African Repository, September 1834.

In the May 4, 1834, edition of the Liberia Herald, James E. Brown, the newly arrived Colonial Apothecary, placed an advertisement announcing his new business:

J. Brown, Druggist and Apothecary, late of Washington City, respectfully informs the citizens of Liberia, that he has taken the house formerly occupied by W.L. Weaver, Esq. in Broad Street, where he is now opening an extensive assortment of Drugs and Medicines, imported in brig Argus, from the United States, which he offers for sale on reasonable terms.” [1]

Over the previous two years, Brown had completed a pharmacy apprenticeship under the auspices of the American Colonization Society (ACS), making him one of the earliest known formally trained African American pharmacists or health professionals.

Brown had many friends in the United States who eagerly awaited updates after his departure. Finally, in August 1834, the National Daily Intelligencer, a leading Washington, DC, newspaper reported Brown’s arrival in Africa:

Many of your city readers will remember James Brown, a colored man, formerly resident here, and universally esteemed as one of the most intelligent and industrious men of color amongst us. He left this city for Liberia in November last… It will, doubtless, gratify his friends, and the friends of the colonization cause to hear of his well-doing. We have to-day seen a letter from him, in which he expressed his great satisfaction with the country and his prospects.” [2]

For the next two decades, Brown tended to the pharmaceutical and medical needs of Liberian colonists, proselytized for his new homeland, and held a series of powerful political positions.

Brown’s remarkable career—and complicated legacy—however have been little remembered. He was one of the first African Americans to receive formal health sciences training in the United States, but he was a vocal life-long supporter of the extremely controversial colonization movement. He strongly advocated for African American freedom, justice, and self-determination, but he failed to extend the same principles to the native Africans he encountered in Liberia. This post provides a brief introduction to the life and times of James E. Brown, Colonial Apothecary.

The United States

Brown was born free in about 1802 in the Washington area but little is known about his early life. By the early 1830s, he had attracted notice in DC for his vocal support of colonization. His politics naturally led him into the orbit of the American Colonization Society, a white led organization of “moderate” anti-slavery activists. Members of the ACS opposed slavery but also did not believe that the United States could build a multiracial democracy. Instead, the ACS proposed resettling enslaved people and free African Americans in its colony of Liberia on the west coast of Africa.

Through his connection with the ACS, Brown met Seth Jewett Todd, a white druggist and fellow supporter of colonization. The minutes for the May 14, 1832, meeting of the ACS Board of Managers documented the official beginning of Brown’s relationship with the Society:

Resolved, that there be paid to James Brown at the rate of 12$ per month from 1 April to 1 Dec. 1832 provided he attends to the Druggists business until December next with Mr. Todd of this city and provided that he shall emigrate with his family as soon after that period as the Board may desire to establish the business of druggist in the colony.” [3]

Brown’s apothecary apprenticeship lasted for about 18 months and was part of a larger unusual and controversial ACS program to train health professionals for Liberia. At the time, African Americans had virtually no opportunities for institutional higher education or medical training of any type. Nearly all pharmacists learned the profession through the apprentice system, and few white druggists would consider teaching the trade to African Americans.

1833 American Colonization Society Annual Report

Extract from the Treasurer’s Report in the 1833 American Colonization Society Annual Report, listing the ACS’s costs for the pharmacy training of James Brown and the medical education of four other African Americans.

Many Southern states, in fact, explicitly outlawed such pharmaceutical training. An 1835 Georgia statute, for example, prohibited “any slave or free person of color” from working in “any apothecary shop or druggist store… [or] of putting up, compounding or dispensing, purchasing, or vending any drug or drugs and medicines of any description, kind or sort whatsoever.” Although northern states lacked such legal restrictions, Brown’s formal apprenticeship was certainly uncommon.


Although Brown strongly argued in favor of colonization, most contemporary African Americans vehemently opposed emigration and bitterly denounced the American Colonization Society. Abolitionist David Walker, for example, in his famous Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829), derided the “colonizing trick,” and demanded that the ACS “tell us no more about colonization, for America is as much our country as it is yours.” He concluded that the “colonizationists” intended to “drive us from our country and homes, after having enriched it with our blood and tears, and [to] keep back millions of our dear brethren, sunk in the most barbarous wretchedness” of slavery.

James Brown was among the small number of African Americans who supported colonization. Indeed, emigration to Africa was so unpopular and expensive that the ACS only transported about 13,000 African Americans to Liberia from the 1820s through 1867.

Nevertheless, Brown repeatedly argued that there was little chance for justice or liberty for African Americans in the United States. During his only return trip to the US in 1841, Brown gave a lecture in Hartford, Connecticut, explaining his philosophy:

“We moreover believe that Liberia, more than all other parts of the known world, affords the best opportunity for the colored man to enjoy the blessing of freedom and independence. It is the only spot on the face of the earth where the colored man is a citizen; all other are aliens.”

He told other associates during this trip that “Liberia now is seen walking… in all her majesty and Freedom that characterizes the free White man in the U. States” and that “nothing could induce [me] to return to the state of degradation of a coloured inhabitant of the United States.” [4]

Colonial Apothecary

In 1833, as James Brown prepared to emigrate to Liberia with his family, Seth J. Todd wrote to the ACS that he would provide the Colonial Apothecary with six months of medicines and “the necessary fixtures of a Drug Store without which it will be impossible for him to do business.” Well stocked for his new venture, Brown arrived in Monrovia, Liberia, in April 1834 and set about establishing a typical American apothecary on the west coast of Africa. [5]

The healthcare needs of Liberian colonists, though, were immense. The environment in the US had not well prepared American settlers for Liberia’s tropical climate or infectious diseases—particularly the local strains of malaria. One historian has estimated that, before 1843, nearly 50% of all American emigrants to Liberia died soon after arriving in Africa. [6]

Brown, who also worked as a self-trained physician, was perpetually short of the necessary drugs, medicines, and supplies to treat his patients. In 1836, he complained in a letter to the ACS that, “you must know that most of my sales are to those who are not able to pay, and yet I must keep up my stock.” Seven years later, he wrote similarly:

“But how I am to live and furnish the poor of the different settlements with medicines, I know not. To deny it to them is impossible. It has almost reduced me to poverty, but I shall not complain as it is given in one of the best causes.” [7]

Liberian Imperialism

Soon after his arrival in Liberia, Brown took his place among the educated Americo-Liberian elite who wielded most local power. In 1835, Brown was elected to the seven-member Monrovia Town Council and soon ascended to the Presidency of the Council. He participated in temperance organizations, founded the Liberia Agricultural Society, and ran his drugstore in Monrovia. Later in the decade, he moved south to Sinoe County where he was the Acting Governor. After independence in 1847, Brown represented Sinoe County in the Liberian Senate until 1851.

As a member of the Americo-Liberian elite, Brown was intimately involved with the Liberian imperial project that routinely exploited and expropriated native Africans. During his 1841 speech in Hartford, he explained his attitude:

“The motive that induces the colored man to become a citizen of Africa is high and ennobling… it is no less than that of bestowing upon poor degraded and benighted Africa the lights of civilization and Christianity… We shall succeed, whether emigration continue or not… To save ourselves from elapsing into barbarism, and to protect ourselves from the savage bands by which we are surrounded, we must go on.” [8]

Liberian Senate 1856

Water-color sketch of the Liberian Senate, c. 1856, several years after James Brown’s tenure in the Senate. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Particularly while living on the frontier in Sinoe County, Brown was hostile to and contemptuous of native Africans. He routinely negotiated one-sided treaties and land purchases that exploited Africans’ lack of knowledge about American conceptions of law or property. In an era dominated by colonialism and white supremacy, Brown and his fellow Americo-Liberian elite succeeded in building an independent Black-run country, but they consistently denied full and equal inclusion to their native African neighbors.


On about August 24, 1853, James E. Brown died of “dropsy in the chest” while visiting Cape Palmas at the southern tip of Liberia. Brown’s death brought forth an outpouring of tributes with most eulogies emphasizing his long career as a healthcare provider.

James Brown Obituary

James Brown’s obituary from the February 1854 issue of the African Repository.

The American Colonization Society deemed his death a “great loss to Liberia” and wrote that “he had acquired such a knowledge of the healing art, as rendered him a very successful and extensively useful practitioner.” The Liberian Collector of Customs praised Bown’s “eminently useful… abilities both in the Legislative Hall and the Pharmaceutical department,” and the New York Colonization Journal wrote simply: “Dr. James Brown, the physician at Sinou, had for more than twenty years devoted his life to relieve the suffering and heal the maladies of the sick.”

Liberian President Joseph J. Roberts in his memorial statement praised “the late ex-Senator Brown whose love of country knew no bounds, whose ardour increased in proportion to the difficulties which surrounded it, and when danger threatened, no personal sacrifice was too great for him to make for the public weal.”

President Roberts concluded: “it is not for me however, to pronounce an eulogium on [his] public life… [because Brown’s] public deeds are identified with, and belong to the history of Liberia, and will be recorded on its pages.” [9]

In the 168 years since his death, however, James E. Brown’s complicated legacy has been little remembered. Few of his “public deeds”—as one of the first formally trained African American health professionals, as the Liberian Colonial Apothecary, or as a vocal supporter of African American freedom and the Liberian experiment—have thus far been “recorded” by historians.


To read more about James E. Brown, Colonial Apothecary, see:


References [1]: Part 2, pp. 126–27. [2]: Part 2, p. 127. [3]: Part 1, p. 79. [4]: Part 1, p. 83. [5]: Part 1, p. 84. [6]: Part 2, pp. 124–25. [7]: Part 2, p. 127. [8]: Part 2, p. 130 [9]: Part 2, pp. 136–38.



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