S. Joe Brown: A Lawyer and Leader

Born in Keosauqua, Iowa, 10 years after the Civil War, S. Joe Brown was determined to succeed despite the odds he faced as an African-American Iowan. Brown was the youngest of six children. His parents, Lewis and Elizabeth Henderson Brown, were descendants of slaves.


Hard Work Pays Off

The family moved to Ottumwa when Brown was 10 years old. Both his parents died before he was 14. Despite being on his own, his mother's dream that he become a lawyer shaped his life. He earned his way through high school working nights as a hotel bellboy for room, board and one dollar a week.

One of his teachers then helped Brown find a hotel job in Iowa City and a tuition scholarship to the University of Iowa. In 1898 Brown became the first African-American graduate from the college of liberal arts and the first chosen for membership in Phi Beta Kappa, a society honoring high scholastic achievement.

Becomes a Teacher

Brown also earned his bachelor of law degree, but set aside his ambition to practice law. He spent one year as principal of a school in a southern Iowa coal mining town. It was the only public school in Iowa where African-Americans could teach. He later moved to Texas and taught at Bishop College.

Finally Law School

But Brown still wanted to be a lawyer. He followed his heart back to Iowa City, became custodian at a fraternity house, and earned an advanced law degree. Brown practiced law in Des Moines for 48 years, working to uphold and expand civil rights. He and five other Iowa lawyers formed the Negro Bar Association in 1902 when they were refused membership in the Iowa Bar Association. With his wife, Sue M. Brown he helped organize the first Iowa branch of the National Association of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP worked to end housing segregation, to secure every citizen's right to vote, to end discrimination in the armed forces and to ensure equal job and educational opportunities. Brown served as the first president of the Iowa NAACP from 1915-1917. By the time he died in 1950, he had indeed succeeded against the odds.


  • Millie K. Frese, “S. Joe Brown,” The Goldfinch 16, no. 4 (Summer 1995): 7.