Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Harriet Elizabeth Brown (1907-2009)
MSA SC 3520-13592

Biography:

Harriet Elizabeth Brown was an early civil rights pioneer who fought for African-American teachers’ pay equality in Maryland in the 1930s. Her successful case against the Board of Education of Calvert County enabled all teachers and school administrators in her county to access equal salaries no matter their race. The impact of Brown’s case was not limited to Calvert County, however, as the repercussions of the pay equalization settlement would eventually resonate throughout the United States and drive the civil rights movement.

Harriet Elizabeth "Libby" Brown was born in Baltimore, Maryland to William and Mary (Smith) Brown in 1907. She was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and attended the Philadelphia Normal School. She later moved to Maryland, where she earned her Bachelors of Science in education from Morgan State University, and then received her Masters of Education from the University of Maryland.1 2

With a passion for teaching, Brown began working in Calvert County Public Schools in 1931; however, when pay discrepancies between white and African-American teachers came to her attention in 1937, she sought justice. At the time, Brown was a first grade teacher at Mt. Hope Elementary, an African-American school in Sunderland, Maryland, and civil rights was a burgeoning political movement.3 After working in Calvert County schools for six years, she learned of pay discrepancies between herself and her white teacher friends.4 Brown, who possessed a principal’s certificate and, at that point, eight years of teaching experience, found that her annual salary of $600 was far below her white peers’ salary of $1,100.5 Brown saw this discrepancy in pay as a clear violation of the 14th Amendment, the landmark stipulation in the U.S. Constitution that granted all people of color equal rights under the law.6 Though there were many obstacles for Brown as a Black woman challenging an entrenched racist system, she trudged forth with her lawsuit all the same. A long time friend of Brown, Ruth Reid, said that Brown pushed back against the anxieties about losing her job and said, “Even if I lose my job, at least I would lose it for something worthwhile.”7

Concurrently, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was working on many salary equalization cases similar to Brown’s. The NAACP’s strategy to promote economic and political growth in African-American communities was based primarily in increasing African-American’s accessibility to good educations. One of the primary facets of this strategy was in ensuring that teachers’ salaries, no matter their race or the race of the students they taught, were all equal.8 In the summer and fall of 1937, Brown began reaching out to a network of advocacy groups, including the Maryland State Colored Teachers Association and the NAACP, who pointed her in the direction of the future Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall. At the time, Marshall was a young attorney who had recently been hired by the NAACP, because of his successful work in fighting for pay equalization for teachers of color. A few months prior to Brown's case, Marshall had successfully settled the first case for pay equalization in Maryland and the first for the NAACP.9 He worked with William Gibbs, Jr., a principal at Rockville Elementary, to ensure that teachers in the Montgomery County Public Schools were being paid equally. With the momentum of this successful case, Marshall was eager to continue pushing for teachers' pay equality throughout his home state.10

Marshall filed a petition for Brown’s case in the Calvert County Circuit Court on November 11, 1937. At the time, Marshall was already convinced that the Calvert County Board of Education would fold to Brown’s wishes with the minor pressure induced by the lawsuit, but he felt he still needed to work on the county commissioners, who were the ones who appropriated the school budget.11 Brown and Marshall sought a writ of mandamus, a superior court’s order to a lower court, board, corporation, or person, commanding it or them to do or not to do an act as the law requires. The mandamus that Brown and Marshall wanted would demand the Calvert County Board of Education to create an equal salary scale for teachers and administrators without distinction as to the race of the teachers or the school where they taught.12 Only a short while after the suit was filed, the Calvert County Board of Education and the county commissioners settled with Brown and Marshall outside of court and agreed to equalize salaries on December 27, 1937.13

Both Brown and Marshall were not interested in settling the case for Brown alone; rather, they were determined to change the county and state standards for pay equalization. In this effort, William Gibbs, Jr. cheered Brown on through a letter commending her courageous pursuit of equality:

... in taking this eventful stand you have the distinction of being the first of your sex to be such a heroin [sic]. This alone is most commendable. It is because I have experienced the position that you are now enjoying, that I take this opportunity to congratulate you upon this very noble deed.14

Both Gibbs and Brown saw to pay equalization in their respective counties, and each case was a push towards statewide and national equality. In the settlement, the Board of Education of Calvert County met to resolve the issue and agreed that

... for the school year 1938-1939, beginning August 1, 1938, all teachers regularly employed by the said Board of Education to teach colored children be paid in addition to the salaries provided for in Article 77, Sections 202 and 203 of the Code of Maryland, 33 1/3 % of the difference between the salaries provided in these sections and those salaries provided for in minimum salary scale established for all white teachers regularly employed to teach in the elementary and high schools of Maryland… all teachers regularly employed by said Board of Education, having equal professional qualifications and doing equivalent work shall be paid according to a uniform minimum salary scale.15

This historic order for total pay equality in Calvert County by August 1939 was a victory for Brown and Marshall, as well as many other educators of color across the nation.16 This successful case would set the precedent for pay equalization efforts, and would be a celebrated second victory for the NAACP of Maryland.17 Two days after this case, Maryland governor Harry Nice would call for a statewide equalization of salaries, and in 1941, Maryland’s Pay Equalization Law, would be enacted, which ensured that teachers and administrators would receive equal pay regardless of their race or the race of the school where they worked.18

After winning her case, Brown went back to work in Calvert County schools. She would move from a teacher to a principal and would see the other Brown v. Board of Education case take place and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 enacted. In writing about her experiences on the case, Brown humbly said that she felt honored to have participated in such a transformative moment in history.19

Brown’s courageous efforts have been remembered by many and efforts to memorialize her pioneering work continue. In 2002, she was honored as a Woman of Courage by the Calvert Retired Teachers Association for her work on pay equalization and for her over 30 years teaching and leading in Calvert County Public Schools. In the ceremony, Ruth Reid said that Brown “is an ordinary person who accomplished some extraordinary feats and we are here today to honor her and give her the glory she has long needed.”20 Brown is also honored in a historical marker at the intersection of Route 2 and Pushaw Station Road in Sunderland, Maryland where Mt. Hope Elementary School stood and where her fight first began.21 This placard is included in the Maryland Women’s Heritage Trail, a celebration of Maryland women’s historical contributions.22 The Calvert County Commission for Women is also collaborating with county legislators to continue to commemorate her contributions, and, as of spring of 2015, a task force was initiated to further study how the state can celebrate her life as a Maryland civil rights trailblazer.23 24 In addition, the Calvert County Commission for Women sponsored the Harriet Elizabeth Brown Award for 2014 History Fair Projects by Calvert County middle and high school students, where students were encouraged to study Brown’s influence in history and create projects inspired by her legacy.25

Harriet Elizabeth Brown ultimately worked in Calvert County Public Schools for more than 30 years.26 She and her sister, Regina Brown, both teachers and principals at elementary schools in Calvert County, were inseparable and enjoyed traveling, following sports, going out with friends, and being active in their communities.27 28 Regina Brown is also considered a civil rights leader in Calvert County for her work as an educator and administrator in African-American schools. Harry Wedewer, the chairperson of an organization that supports the restoration of one of these historic African-American schools, said of both sisters that they will “still be teaching even though they’re gone,” because their influence on education and civil rights will be felt by all.29 Brown passed away at the age of 101 on January 1, 2009, and is buried at the Southern Memorial Gardens in Dunkirk, Maryland. In an interview about her friend, Ruth Reid said, “If there was something that you really wanted to do and believed it, then she believed you could do it and she helped you in any way that she could help you.”30 Brown’s memory lives on through her pioneering work for civil rights and the many students she has supported and inspired in her long teaching career. She is proudly recognized as a member of the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame.


Endnotes:

  1. “Harriet Brown,” Calvert Independent, January 2009, Harriet Elizabeth Brown Family File, the Mason Brown Collection, courtesy of the Calvert County Historical Society. Return to text.

  2. “Harriet E. Brown,” The Washington Post, 4 January 2009, http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/washingtonpost/obituary.aspx?pid=122159007. Return to text.

  3. Andrea Frazier, “Legislation proposed to honor Calvert County civil rights crusader,” Gazette.Net, 25 March 2015, http://www.gazette.net/article/20150325/NEWS/150329669&template=gazette. Return to text.

  4. Katie Fitzpatrick, “The case that changed teacher equality,” Southern Maryland News, 8 February 2013, http://www.somdnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20130208/NEWS/130209232/1053&template=southernMaryland. Return to text.

  5. Harriet Elizabeth Brown, “The Case of H. Elizabeth Brown,” Calvert Life Monthly, February 2006, Harriet Elizabeth Brown Family File, the Mason Brown Collection, courtesy of the Calvert County Historical Society. Return to text.

  6. Carolyn Stegman, “Harriet Elizabeth Brown,” in Women of Achievement in Maryland History (University Park: Women of Achievement, 2002). Return to text.

  7. Fitzpatrick, “The case that changed teacher equality.” Return to text.

  8. John Kirk, “The NAACP Campaign for Teachers’ Salary Equalization: African American Women Educators and the Early Civil Rights Struggle,” The Journal of African American History 94 no. 4 (2009), 529-531. Return to text.

  9. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, “Equalization of Teachers’ Salaries,” 1 March 1938, Harriet Elizabeth Brown Family File, the Mason Brown Collection, courtesy of the Calvert County Historical Society. Return to text.

  10. Larry Gibson, “Chapter 16: Commuting Back for Equal Teacher Pay,” Young Thurgood: The Making of a Supreme Court Justice (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2012), 309-326. Return to text.

  11. Ibid. Return to text.

  12. Stegman, “Harriet Elizabeth Brown.” Return to text.

  13. Ibid. Return to text.

  14. William B. Gibbs, Jr., letter to Harriet Elizabeth Brown, 17 December 1937. Harriet Elizabeth Brown Family File, the Mason Brown Collection, courtesy of the Calvert County Historical Society. Return to text.

  15. Board of Education of Calvert County, 27 December 1937 minutes detailing actions on salaries. Harriet Elizabeth Brown Family File, courtesy of the Calvert County Historical Society. Return to text.

  16. “N.A.A.C.P. Attacks Law,” Harriet Elizabeth Brown Family File, the Mason Brown Collection, courtesy of the Calvert County Historical Society. Return to text.

  17. Gibson, “Chapter 16: Commuting Back for Equal Teacher Pay.” Return to text.

  18. Stegman, “Harriet Elizabeth Brown.” Return to text.

  19. Harriet Elizabeth Brown, “The Case of H. Elizabeth Brown.” Return to text.

  20. Dave Crozier,“H. Elizabeth Brown – a Woman of Courage,” Calvert Independent. 26 June 2002. Harriet Elizabeth Brown Family File, the Mason Brown Collection, courtesy of the Calvert County Historical Society. Return to text.

  21. Frazier, “Legislation proposed to honor Calvert County civil rights crusader.” Return to text.

  22. Maryland Women’s Heritage Center, “Maryland Women’s Heritage Trail Resource Kit: Pages 21-30 Calvert, Caroline, Carroll, & Cecil Co,” accessed 26 June 2015, http://mdwomensheritagecenter.publishpath.com/heritage-trail. Return to text.

  23. Frazier, “Legislation proposed to honor Calvert County civil rights crusader.” Return to text.

  24. Calvert County Delegation, Calvert County - Task Force to Study the Commemoration of Harriet Elizabeth Brown, Maryland General Assembly, 2015 Session, H.B. 354. Return to text.

  25. Calvert County Commission for Women, “The Harriet Elizabeth Brown Award,” Maryland Women’s Heritage Center, accessed 26 June 2015, http://mdwomensheritagecenter.publishpath.com/Websites/mdwomensheritagecenter/images/GENERAL_Flyer,_CCCW_Harriet_Elizabeth_Brown_Award.pdf. Return to text.

  26. “Harriet E. Brown,” The Washington Post. Return to text.

  27. “Harriet Elizabeth Brown, 101, Owings,” Gazette.Net, 23 January 2009, http://www.gazette.net/article/20090123/Obits/301239879&template=gazette. Return to text.

  28. Fitzpatrick, “The case that changed teacher equality.” Return to text.

  29. Laura Buck , “Equal pay activist Brown dies at 101,” The Calvert Recorder, 16 January 2009, Harriet Elizabeth Brown Family File courtesy of the Calvert County Historical Society. Return to text.

  30. Fitzpatrick, “The case that changed teacher equality.” Return to text.

Biography written by 2015 summer intern Amelia Meman.

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