Harriet Elizabeth Brown: “The Quiet Heroine of 1937”

By Michael Gayhart Kent, Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture

Harriet Elizabeth Brown

Harriet Elizabeth Brown

1937 was an explosive year in history.  On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg airship ignited over New Jersey and crashed to the ground in flames.  The June 3, 1937 wedding of Wallis Simpson to the former King of England also shook the world, dominating the news until the shock of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance over the Pacific on July 2, 1937.  The most earth-shaking event for the black community in Maryland came on November 11, 1937, when Harriet Elizabeth Brown, a Black teacher at Mt. Hope Elementary School, filed a lawsuit against the Calvert County Board of Education.

Harriet Elizabeth Brown, born in Baltimore in 1907 and educated in Philadelphia and Baltimore, arrived in Calvert County in 1930.  Brown’s only family in Calvert was her sister, Regina, who had also come to teach.  They arrived in this rural county to find that the public schools for Colored children consisted of numerous one-room schoolhouses which only taught up to the 7th grade level.  As a result, when the School Board increased the course requirements and added higher grade levels, the teachers had to be recruited from other areas, since the local students did not attain sufficient education locally to qualify as teachers.  The majority of the teachers, like the Brown sisters, were recruited from other States and were female.

The original Wallville School, ca. 1880, was probably typical of the one-room schoolhouses Harriet Brown would have taught in when she arrived in Calvert County in the 1930s. This is believed to be the oldest extant African American school building in the county. Photo: David Krankowski.

The original Wallville School, ca. 1880, was probably typical of the one-room schoolhouses Harriet Brown would have taught in when she arrived in Calvert County in the 1930s. This is believed to be the oldest extant African American school building in the county. Photo: David Krankowski.

Although by 1940 the Brown sisters were living in a house they bought, for their first few years in Calvert County they would have been compelled to live, as were all female teachers, in houses provided by the Supervisor of Colored Schools.  Additionally, they were ordered not to associate with local residents or risk losing their jobs.  The reason for that edict was the fear of losing teachers to marriage and pregnancy after an expensive and difficult recruiting process.

The former Wallville School teacherage, or teachers’ boarding house, is one of only a few surviving examples in Calvert County.

The former Wallville School teacherage, or teachers’ boarding house, is one of only a few surviving examples in Calvert County.

After teaching in Calvert County for several years, Harriet Brown learned of the discrepancy between her salary and that of White teachers and enlisted the help of the Maryland State Colored Teachers’ Association and the N.A.A.C.P. to fight the Calvert County Board of Education. The N.A.A.C.P. sent a young attorney named Thurgood Marshall to handle the case.  Marshall had been working on issues of equal pay in his home state; inequalities existed throughout the state, but the Association lacked the standing to go to court.  The Association needed individual teachers from each county to make a challenge.  When the lawsuits were attempted in Prince George’s and Anne Arundel Counties, the teachers were threatened and harassed until the complaints were withdrawn.  In some cases the teachers would be promoted to principals so they would lose their “standing” as teachers.  However, progress was being made, since Marshall had recently successfully settled a similar case of unequal pay in Montgomery County.  Marshall’s petition alleged that Brown, who was Black, was paid $600 a year, while White teachers at the same experience level received $1,100 per year.   Marshall was able to reach an out of court settlement with the Board of Education which required the equalization of salaries by August of 1939, the date of Calvert County’s next budget.  The case was a turning point which led to the Maryland Teacher’s Pay Equalization Law, the first of its kind in the state.

Harriet Elizabeth Brown

Harriet Elizabeth Brown

Thirty years later, Miss Brown had become the Principal at Mt. Hope Elementary School.  Mt. Hope was still a segregated school, and one of the students was this writer.  Miss Brown was not only the Principal, but she also oversaw the meager library.  Once a week would be library day for each class, and Miss Brown would read us a story.  Afterwards, she would help us pick out books to take home and read.  It would be several decades later before I would know how much more Miss Brown had accomplished, besides teaching me the joy of books.

Harriet Brown’s special contributions to history were first recognized by a roadside marker in front of the former Mt. Hope School where she taught.  In 1994, Brown was inducted into the Maryland Hall of Fame for Women.  She accepted the award herself from Governor William Donald Schaefer.  In 2015, a State task force was commissioned to posthumously honor Harriet Brown.  The task force has recommended that the State road which passes in front of the former Mt. Hope School be renamed for her.  In February of 2016, Calvert County named a new community center in her honor.  It is the first government building in Calvert County named for an African American.  Harriet Elizabeth Brown’s complaint did not get the same attention as other events of 1937, but her quiet action is still having an impact on us today.

Wallville School – “this place matters”! Photo: Steve Kullen. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/old-wallville-school-a-place-that-matters/2011/06/14/AG6MwIXH_story.html)

Wallville School – “this place matters”! Photo: Steve Kullen.

Sources:

Oral History from Gayhart Kent

Oral History from Augusta Brooks Kent

Afro-American Newspaper Article (Staff Reporter). “NAACP Reviews Two – year Fight on Teachers’ salaries.” September 24, 1938

Afro-American Newspaper Article (Staff Reporter). “Calvert County MD. School Supervisor called “Little Hitler.” April 6, 1940

http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc3500/sc3520/013500/013592/html/13592bio.html

Goddard, Richlyn F.  Persistence, Perseverance and Progress: History of African American Schools inCalvert County, Maryland, 1865-1965.  Prince Frederick, Maryland: Calvert County Government and Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum, 1995.

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One thought on “Harriet Elizabeth Brown: “The Quiet Heroine of 1937”

  1. This is such an inspiring and informative article. Correcting racial inequities takes the courage of everyday people and the patience of Job! But at least change does occur. Thank you for a great article.

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