Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Byrd R. Brown was a leading Civil Rights activist in Pittsburgh.
Awards: Drum Major for Justice Award; Homer S. Brown Law Association Award; Yale Club of Pittsburgh Distinguished Alumni Award
Born July 26, 1929 (sources vary), in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Byrd Rowlett Brown was raised to become a great civil rights leader. At Yale, he earned a B.A. and a law degree. He used his education to promote equality rather than to gain wealth. After a failed run for Congress and an unsuccessful campaign for Mayor of Pittsburgh, Brown became president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the NAACP. He led a march on Duquesne Light, protesting unfair hiring practices. Brown improved life for Pittsburgh's African Americans and the poor. He died on May 3, 2001, from emphysema.
Byrd Rowlett Brown was born July 26, 1929 (sources vary), in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the son of Homer S. Brown and Wilhelmina Byrd Brown. His father was Allegheny County's first black judge, founder of the Pittsburgh chapter of the NAACP, a member of the state legislature, and the writer of the Pennsylvania State Fair Employment Practices Act. Wilhelmina Byrd Brown was also a noted civil rights activist. Brown's grandfather was William Roderick Brown, a well-known and respected North Side preacher. Growing up with parents who fought for their rights allowed Brown to see the importance of protesting injustice.
Brown grew up in a wealthy section of Pittsburgh's Hill District known as Sugar Top. Though others viewed Brown's family's wealth as an advantage, he never became ashamed of the opportunities that had been handed to him. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quotes one of Brown's childhood friends as saying, "He never apologized for being born in a family that was well off. If you said to him, 'You were born with a golden spoon in your mouth,' he said, 'Thank God for it.'" He was one of the first few black children to attend the YMCA's Camp Kon O'Kwee. He later became the first Black counselor-in-training, but was never allowed to hold a counselor's position because of racial objections. Reverend J. Van Alfred Winsett III noted that despite struggling with racism, Brown "carried himself with dignity, never with hatred." During high school, Brown was the first black starter on the Schenley football team. In 1947, Brown graduated from high school with large aspirations.
Brown attended college at Yale. Racial tension during his time at Yale was described by the president of the Urban League in his statement to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette where he claimed that "Some of the students at Yale treated [Brown] as if he were some animal foreign to them." He earned his B.A. and LL.B degrees there and then went on to become an attorney. He graduated in 1955 and began working as "one of the best trial lawyers that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has ever produced." A former NAACP president was quoted in the Courier describing Brown as a "fighter who believed never say never, never say quit." During the 1950s, Brown was in a hotel lobby when a man approached his girlfriend. Despite recognizing that the man was Sugar Ray Robinson, Brown confronted the boxer fully knowing that he would not win the fight.
Brown served in the United States Army from 1954 to 1956. Upon being honorably discharged, he established his own private law practice in downtown Pittsburgh which was among the first black-owned businesses in the area. In 1958 Brown was elected president of the local chapter of the NAACP, a position which his father held for 24 years before. Brown would remain president of the NAACP until 1971. It was not long before Brown saw opportunity for advancement. In 1963, Brown and Livingstone Johnson organized and led a demonstration outside of the Sixth Avenue Duquesne Light offices to protest unequal hiring opportunities. After the march, Duquesne Light began hiring African American workers. In 1968, Brown acted as co-chairman of the Spring Mobilization for Peace and one year later, he became the principal speaker at Moratorium Day Rally at Point Park in Pittsburgh.
By 1970, it was time for Byrd Brown to seek new challenges. He decided to run for the United States Congress. During the campaign, Brown announced his personal wealth and challenged his competitor, the United States Representative William S. Moorhead, to do the same. This incited a heated political battle between the two. Though he managed to expose his component as a stock holder and suggested that Moorhead was running to increase his own personal wealth, Brown's pursuit was unsuccessful. The loss to Representative Moorhead did not stop Brown from running for the Democratic nomination for mayor of Pittsburgh in 1989. He stated that he would "run as a citizen and as a black man-in that order." Yet the catchy slogan "Byrd is the word" was not enough to win the election. Brown finished fourth out of the five candidates running in the mayoral race, but he went on to win the Yale Club of Pittsburgh Distinguished Alumni Award which honors those who have helped to improve their community. The award had only been given to one person before Brown received it.
In 1991, Brown took on William Bradford Reynolds, a former U.S. Attorney General in a debate concerning affirmative action. Reynolds argued to remove affirmative action because enacting such a requirement lowers standards and feeds into reverse discrimination, but Brown argued that affirmative action is "the kind of code word that is always used to keep [African Americans] in [their] place" and so it is no more discriminative than other active legislation.
That same year Brown was honored as the keynote address speaker for the Alle-Kisi memorial service for Martin Luther King Jr. Brown was recognized in 1995 by the Allegheny Barr Association and by the Homer S. Brown Law Association for being one of the first 40 African American lawyers in the United States. In 2000, Brown was awarded the Drum Major for Justice Award and the Homer S. Brown Law Association Award. A former president of the NAACP was quoted saying that "Pro bono was [Brown's] middle name. He did a thorough job whether the client had a nickel or nothing. He made them work to put a person in jail."
Despite the excessive hype given to the campaigns, Brown managed to keep his personal life out of the media. Numerous sources indicated that he married and then divorced Marilyn Parker and that he then married Barbara Dobroshelsky, but none specifically lists when these events occurred. Brown and his second wife had two daughters, Courtlyn Wilhelmina Brown and Patricia Brown Stephens.
At age 71, Byrd Rowlett Brown died in UPMC-Presbyterian of emphysema on the day of the annual human-rights dinner that his mother co-founded. His generous contributions to college scholarships and to the non-profit organization Hand in Hand during his lifetime, the improvements he made in Pittsburgh housing, as well as the differences that he made in the lives of Pittsburgh's African Americans have immortalized his name. Reverend Donald McIlvane knew Brown in his lifetime and upon his death commented that "by no means is [his work] finished."
"A Giant in the Civil Rights Struggle." Pittsburgh Post Gazette 4 May 2001: A1.