Homer S. Brown Biography
Judge, attorney, civil rights activist
Considered the father of the Pennsylvania state Fair Employment Practices Act and the first African-American judge in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Homer S. Brown was a civil and political rights activist for most of his life. For over fifty years, from the time he received his law degree in 1923 until illness forced him to retire two years before his death in 1975, Judge Brown worked to facilitate positive change within the black community in the areas of employment, education, and civil rights. His passion and activism for the promotion of civil rights and his numerous contributions to his local and statewide community secured him a place of honor and integrity in the history of Pennsylvania.
Homer Sylvester Brown was born in Huntington, West Virginia, on September 23, 1896, to the Reverend William Roderick Brown and Maria Wiggins Rowlett Brown. He was educated at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia, and received his law degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1923, graduating third in a class of 22. During his lifetime, Brown also received honorary doctor of law degrees from Lincoln University, Virginia Union University, University of Pittsburgh, and Virginia State College. He married Wilhelmina Byrd in 1927 and had one son, Byrd Rowlett Brown.
Homer Brown's legacy continued on through his son Byrd Brown, who was also a noted Pittsburgh attorney and civil rights activist in Pittsburgh. Byrd held his father's legacy in highest respect, taking up the torch where he had left off. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mayor Tom Murphy of Pittsburgh said upon Byrd's death in 2001, "Pittsburghers, especially younger African-Americans, need to know Byrd Brown for something more than that he was a successful and talented attorney. Byrd Brown was an African-American who stood in the front lines of the civil rights movement and faced down enormous hatred and prejudice. It takes a rare kind of courage to be able to do that." This courage, talent, and motivation came from a father who had modeled success and practiced greatness in a time of oppression.
Homer S. Brown became a member of the Allegheny County Bar Association on October 26, 1923, shortly after getting his law degree. As a young attorney, Brown began working to improve his community. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, there was a dramatic increase in Pittsburgh crime. Brown chaired a committee, called the Friendly Service Bureau, to promote crime reduction within the Hill City District of Pittsburgh. With the help of the city's mayor at the time, Cornelius D. Scully, the crime reduction program drastically reduced crime and improved the quality of life for the youth of the Hill District.
In 1934, Brown was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and served seven consecutive terms until 1950. In 1937, he began to question the hiring practices of the Pittsburgh Board of Education. He organized state hearings to investigate, and the results paved the way for a major lawsuit. Although Pittsburgh had desegregated its schools in 1875, the Pittsburgh Board of Education had refused to hire black teachers. The lawsuit, argued by black attorneys Richard F. Jones and Joseph Givens, changed the practices of the Board; it hired the school's first black music instructor, Lawrence Peeler, within a year of the court case. Homer Brown scored one of numerous victories in this important lawsuit. In 1943 he was voted the most able member of the House by the Capital News Correspondents' Association and also named the most outstanding legislator.
While he was a member of the House of Representatives, Brown faced one of his greatest struggles—to secure human rights protection for working class residents of Pennsylvania. He authored a bill to prohibit discrimination in employment in Pennsylvania in 1945, giving him the famous title "Father of the State Fair Employment Practices Act" (FEPC). After extensive research was conducted on discrimination practices in Pennsylvania, it was found that nine out of ten firms discriminated against race, religion, or national origin in the hiring of workers. The result of this research proved that there was a need for Brown's FEPC. Its establishment in Pennsylvania was another major victory for Brown and for the working class in Pennsylvania.
Brown might also be called the "father of firsts." He was the founder and first President of the Pittsburgh branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP), a position that he served for 24 years. In 1943, he was the first African-American appointed to the Pittsburgh Board of Education, and in 1949 he became the first African-American to hold the position of Allegheny County Judge. He was elected to the Court of Common Pleas in 1956 and remained until 1975 when poor health forced his retirement.
On the bench Brown was known well for his decision in 1968 that the City of Pittsburgh's tax on hospitals, known as the "sick tax," was unconstitutional. Another historic decision came in 1973 when he ruled that prayers could be offered at graduation ceremonies. The United States Supreme Court upheld both of these decisions. He was also instrumental in the passage of several bills, known as the "Pittsburgh Package," which created the Housing Authority, of which Brown served as a charter member, and the Pittsburgh Renaissance.
But Brown was not only active in the judicial arena. He was also the member of numerous other organizations, such as Chair of the Board of Directors of the YMCA; the White House Commission on Education in 1955, and the Pennsylvania Governor's Committee on Education in 1960. He also served on the advisory board of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization and served one year in the U.S. Army. Because of his tireless work to improve life for those in and around his community, Brown was well known and highly respected in Pennsylvania. As a matter of fact, when Thurgood Marshall, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice, came to town, he dined in the prominent home of Homer and Wilhelmina Brown.
The Homer S. Brown Law Association, founded in 1969 in Pittsburgh in honor of Brown, is the only African-American law association in the city, representing the interests of approximately 200 African-American attorneys and jurists. The goal of the organization is to protect political and civil rights, increase the legal knowledge of the community, assist local law students, and benefit members by providing employment information. The membership group supports minority lawyers and tracks hiring progress in Pittsburgh and continues to be extremely active in the Pittsburgh community. Judge Homer S. Brown's legacy lives on.
Twenty-three volumes of photocopies of material belonging to Homer Brown are on deposit at Virginia Union University in Richmond. Material in these volumes were collected and compiled by his wife, Wilhelmina Byrd Brown, and gifted to the university in 1978 and 1980. This collection signifies the prolific work of Brown during his activities as judge, lawyer, and civil rights activist. Materials related to Brown's fight against Governor Earle's bill to change the Pennsylvania Grand Jury System in 1938 and 1939 documents regarding charges of discrimination against the City of Pittsburgh in hiring of African-Americans as teachers, are of particular interest in the collection. The collection also includes a number of judicial opinions written by Judge Brown between 1961 and 1974. Judge Brown died at his home in Pittsburgh on May 22, 1977.
"Byrd Brown Feted by Peers: Father's Group Honors Son's Leadership and Work," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, www.post-gazette.com/businessnews/20000118brown3.asp (September 2, 2004).
"The Civil Rights Movement in Pittsburgh: To Make This City 'Some Place Special," Freedom Corner, www.freedomcorner.org/downloads/glasco.pdf (September 23, 2004).
"Fallen Heroes," Freedom Corner, www.freedomcorner.org/fallen_heros.html (September 2, 2004).
"Lawyer Byrd Brown Dies; Giant in Civil Rights Struggle," www.post-gazette.com/obituaries/20010504brown2.asp (August 26, 2004).
"Pittsburghers of the Century," Pittsburgh Magazine, www.wqed.org/mag/articles/12_99/100pgh_1.html#b (August 26, 2004).
—Cheryl A. Dudley
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