The Calvert Recorder
Highway pays homage to Harriet Elizabeth Brown
By TAMARA WARD [email protected]
November 2, 2016
More than 100 people convened at Mt. Harmony Community Center in Sunderland to pay homage to Harriet Elizabeth Brown, county educator and civil rights activist. The Nov. 1 ceremony dedicated a 4.6-mile stretch of Route 2 as the Harriet Elizabeth Brown Memorial Parkway.
The highway dedication was the second of three recommendations from the Harriet Elizabeth Brown Commemoration Task Force to honor Brown’s legacy. In the 1930s, Brown, then age 30, set off a spark, working with attorney Thurgood Marshall, then 29, that led to the landmark case to achieve pay equality for all teachers in Calvert County.
“[They] successfully used the 14th Amendment of our Constitution to challenge Calvert County Public Schools for paying African-American teachers about half of what they paid white teachers,” said Margaret Dunkle, task force chair, who kicked off the Tuesday afternoon ceremony. “She earned $600 a year compared with about $1,100 for her white counterparts.”
“Calvert County schools … is all the better today for having been sued to correct its practices back in 1937,” said Dunkle.
The renamed portion of Route 2, to recognize Brown and pay equity in the school system, runs from the intersection of Route 4 to the Anne Arundel County line. It is appropriate that the namesake highway passes the former Mt. Hope Elementary School, where Brown once taught as well as served as principal. The school, now the community center, was a fitting locale for the event.
“We have so many people to thank for this day … our state legislators for enacting the Harriet Elizabeth Brown Commemoration Task Force law a year and a half ago, Governor Hogan for signing it into law, our county commissioners, who have been supportive every inch of the way,” said Dunkle.
Dunkle credits former delegate Tony O’Donnell with the idea of creating a task force and working in conjunction with Del. Michael A. Jackson (D-Calvert, Prince George’s) and Del. Mark Fisher (R-Calvert). The group crafted House Bill 354 to establish the task force. Dunkle said later they worked with Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert, Charles, Prince George’s) and Sen. Steve Waugh (R-Calvert, St. Mary’s) for the companion senate measure. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed the bill May 12, 2015.
“The task force met for six months and we issued our final report on Dec. 27, 2015 — 78 years to the day from Harriet Elizabeth Brown’s settlement,” said Dunkle, of the process to develop three initiatives to officially observe Brown’s contribution to Calvert County.
Task force members included Calvert Commissioner Pat Nutter (R); Daniel Curry, superintendent of Calvert County Public Schools; Joyce Freeland, president of the Calvert County chapter of the NAACP; Guffrie Smith, president of the Calvert County Historical Society; Jackson; and Malcolm Funn, who served as a designee of the senate members representing Calvert County, all of whom spoke at the ceremony.
“I represent a — perhaps — a board of education that, in 1937, read the handwriting on the wall and said ‘we better go ahead and deal with this so we can go on,’” Curry said with a smile.
“I wish I had met Libby Brown because even though she gained equal compensation, starting about 1939, she returned to segregated, unequally supported schools. She taught the majority of her career in schools like that before all the schools were integrated in Calvert,” Curry continued.
Curry talked about the many lives she touched as a teacher and principal. “She taught kids to read … to do math … and she probably also paddled a few — introducing them to the other ‘board’ of education,” he quipped.
Smith, a retired educator, said he is indebted to Brown. He reported his annual salary in 1964 as a teacher was roughly $4,000 and may not have been possible, if not for the efforts of Brown. “Her spirit lives on as we continue to focus on eradicating inequities in the nation, the state, community, our schools, government and elsewhere,” stressed Smith.
College of Southern Maryland President Brad Gottfried acknowledged the celebration, but also drew parallels with that time period and the current climate in the country in hopes to help youth overcome challenges with the same kind of courage and conviction as Brown.
“These are troubled times for our nation — where too many of us don’t feel we have the respect, the equity, the inclusiveness that we all deserve,” Gottfried said, before reflecting on the importance of the dedication ceremony. “It’s this kind of event … when we can celebrate a very special person that did very special things. To me, that’s what this country is about: Not its divisiveness. It’s how we all work together.”
Brothers Madison and Sherman Brown, cousins of Brown, detailed their cousin Libby’s legacy and desire to help others. Sherman said of her actions that his cousin said, “Somebody had to do it and I did it.”
“She might not always have been the teacher that you most liked, because she challenged, but she was the one that cared about you the most … because she was concerned about your future. She wanted you to be successful individuals … a value added no matter where you went,” said Madison Brown to the crowd, which included nearly three dozen of Brown’s former pupils. “To you, you are her valued legacy.”
Alphonso “Hawk” Hawkins, a former student of Brown, spoke on behalf of all the former students in attendance at the event. Hawkins, who is retired from both the Prince George’s County Police Department and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, said he came to know her in 1958 as a first-grader. Hawkins pointed out his first- and second-grade classrooms were in the structure that is now a community center. “Every time I come to this building, Mt. Hope Elementary School, I get chills,” said Hawkins, choking up.
“The Ms. Brown that we know … we didn’t see many smiles. She was stern. She kept you in line,” remembered Hawkins, who refused to call the former educator by her nickname, Libby. “You better follow her rules. As young students, we didn’t understand.”
Hawkins said as they matured, understood and now reflect on the firmness of Brown. Borrowing from a well-known African proverb, he said, “It takes a village to raise a child. She was a chief and we were her kids. She protected us.”
Several state, local and federal legislators, or their representatives, were also in attendance for the celebration. Representing the governor was Winston Wilson, reading a proclamation.
Fisher talked about the need to preserve history. “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” said Fisher, quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and referring to Brown’s quiet strength.
Jackson said he was proud to see one of the two signs designating the road as the Harriet Elizabeth Brown Memorial Parkway, as a task force member and history buff. “As a person that was reared to fight for the right cause, I can do nothing but admire someone such as [Brown],” said Jackson.
Miller, who said he had met Brown, commended Dunkle on the efforts to commemorate her legacy. Miller pointed out that Dunkle’s father, Maurice Dunkle, was a former superintendent of Calvert County schools. “He oversaw a peaceful integration of the school system in Calvert County. The fruit didn’t fall far from the tree,” Miller said.
A representative of O’Donnell, Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md., 5th) and U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) read letters to commemorate the occasion, while another presented a certificate on Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s (D-Md.) behalf.
Dunkle, stating this is not just a Calvert story, but a Maryland story and a national story, challenged lawmakers to make it an exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The first task force recommendation, completed in March, was the naming of an interim community center on Dares Beach Road in Prince Frederick after Brown. The final recommendation, yet to be completed, is the commission of a portrait of Brown.
Administrative Judge Marjorie Clagett, a former educator, was at the ceremony and spoke of the efforts to have the original portrait hung in the courthouse, with high-quality copies placed in the county’s board of education building and the community center. The expected cost is roughly $10,000. Nancy Highsmith, a donor advisor for the task force and leading efforts to raise funds, said more than half of the money has been raised.
In addition to the task force initiatives, Linda Buckley of Calvert Library is working on a middle school book to capture the story of Harriet Elizabeth Brown. Buckley was at the ceremony to solicit personal accounts from former students and those who knew Brown well.
According Dunkle, there is only one other road in Maryland named after an African-American woman, “the other Harriet” — Harriet Tubman.