Sir Alex Ferguson celebrated 25 years in charge of United with victory over the Black Cats, thanks to a helping hand from one of his former players.
The Scot, who took over at Old Trafford on November 6, 1986, walked onto the pitch through a guard of honour made up of both teams and former United defender Steve Bruce, now manager of Sunderland, before chief executive David Gill announced the north stand was being renamed in his honour.
The game, which will certainly not live as long in the memory, was settled in the hosts' favour in first-half injury time when former United man Brown headed into his own net on his first return to Old Trafford.
Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand started together in the United central defence for the first time since the opening day of the season, with Anders Lindegaard given a chance in goal.
For Sunderland, keeper Keiren Westwood made his first Premier League start in place of the injured Simon Mignolet while John O'Shea was denied a first return to Old Trafford by a hamstring injury.
Black Cats boss Bruce had never got the better of Ferguson in 16 previous meetings with his former manager, and he was dealt a blow in the opening moments when Connor Wickham appeared to roll his ankle and Ji Dong-wan came on in his place.
It was perhaps inevitable the game would fail to live up to the occasion, and so it proved for most of the first half, with United dominating possession but failing to test Westwood, while Sunderland provided some decent flashes going forward.
Sebastian Larsson saw a shot deflected behind by Patrice Evra while Lindegaard pushed away a Nicklas Bendtner effort from the edge of the area.
At the other end, Javier Hernandez looked to have a chance when he was played in by Darren Fletcher but he went down rather too easily under pressure from Larsson and referee Lee Mason waved away the penalty claims.
United were getting closer, though, and Phil Jones fired a volley just over the bar after a Nani corner came to him on the edge of the area in the 43rd minute, while Westwood got down smartly to block a Nani effort from a tight angle.
And from the resulting corner the hosts did take the lead. With the clock ticking through four minutes of injury time, Nani sent over a cross that the unfortunate Brown headed into his own net under pressure from Danny Welbeck.
The second half also took a while to get going but it was United doing all the pressing and Nani curled a 25-yard free-kick just wide before Hernandez flashed a shot over the bar.
The hosts came close to a second goal twice in quick succession with 64 minutes gone. First the lively Nani was denied by a last-ditch challenge by former United player Keiran Richardson, then from the resulting corner Hernandez's header was cleared off the line by the same player.
The game then took a controversial turn as Sunderland finally engineered a decent crossing opportunity, delivered by Larsson for Ji, who was challenged by two United defenders.
Initially referee Lee Mason played on but, when he saw his assistant Jake Collin flagging, he appeared to award Sunderland a penalty for a handball by Jones.
Larsson positioned the ball on the spot but, after a lengthy discussion between Mason and Collin, the referee eventually decided it was Ji who had handled and reversed the decision, much to the frustration of Bruce and his players.
Westwood was one of the most highly-regarded keepers outside the Premier League before leaving Coventry for Sunderland in the summer, and he showed why with a stunning double save in the 71st minute.
After parrying Rooney's fizzing 10-yard effort, Westwood then got back up to push Evra's follow-up over the bar when the full-back looked certain to score.
While it remained only 1-0, Sunderland had a chance, and another testing Larsson cross was just too far in front of Bendtner when a touch would surely have resulted in a goal.
But it was not to be for Bruce's men and the three points ensured United climbed back above Newcastle into second place in the Premier League table.