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The Power of One

December 27, 1937, is the day that equality came to Calvert County, thanks to school teacher Harriet ­Elizabeth Brown

Huntingtown High School 11th-grader Dia Brown, winner of the 2014 Harriet Elizabeth Brown History Fair Award.

Harriet Elizabeth Brown was a young woman of 30 when she challenged separate salary scales for black teachers. The year was 1937.
    The Calvert County teacher’s attorney, Thurgood Marshall, was 29 when he represented her in the first Brown vs. Board of Education lawsuit. Together they laid the foundation for the Maryland Teachers Pay Equalization Law.
    In 1939, federal courts ruled that determining the salaries of white and colored teachers solely on account of race or color was unlawful discrimination.

•   •   •

Putting herself in Ms. Brown’s shoes, Dia imagines back to  September 27, 1937 …

    I met with one of my white counterparts the other day for lunch, and we got into the most intriguing discussion over salary. It turns out she gets paid $1,100 dollars. I only get paid $600.
    I do the same amount of work as she does. Shouldn’t I get paid the same? This just isn’t right.

 

Harriet ­Elizabeth Brown, circa 1928.

    Change of scene to Thurgood Marshall’s office, whose thoughts Dia imagines …
    I just got off the phone with Harriet Elizabeth Brown from Calvert County. She has petitioned the board for equal salary, but the body refused.
    I think I will take the case. I see a lot of potential in it as well as in Brown. In 1930 I applied to the University of Maryland Law School and was denied admission for being black, which caused me to join the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Ever since then I have been fighting for equal rights. Now that Harriet Elizabeth Brown (Brown vs. Board of Education) has decided to fight, I believe now is the time to give them all we got.

Switch to Harriet ­Elizabeth Brown writing a letter to her sister, Regina …

    November 1937, my dearest sister Regina, I never believed that this case would receive so much attention.
    Maryland schools are so much different compared to the schools where we taught back in Pennsylvania. But I am not giving up on this county.
    Apparently the press is really taking an interest to it: NAACP Begins New Pay Suit … Equal Pay Sought by Negro Teacher … Philadelphia Girl Center of Maryland Court Fight Seeking Equalization of Teacher’s Pay are just a few of the headlines on this case.
    The lawyer I was telling you about in my previous letters, Thurgood Marshall, has been visiting occasionally with Superintendent Hughes to talk over the whole situation. I have a lot of faith in him and the NAACP, and I know that he will pull through for us in the end. Hope for the best in this case. With love, Elizabeth.

Switch to Thurgood Marshal …

Thurgood Marshall in 1938 at age 30.

    A couple days till a final decision is made; it has finally come down to this. I wonder if she knows what a profound impact this court case will have not only on blacks in Calvert County public schools but for all cases concerning inequality.

Switch to Harriet ­Elizabeth Brown in her classroom, rejoicing …

    Yes! All our hard work has finally paid off! We won the case!
    December 27, 1937, will be remembered as the day that equality came to Calvert County. Equal salaries will be effective August 1, 1939. Twenty-three teachers in the county are receiving immediate increases in pay.
    This is a proud moment for us all.

Switch to older ­Thurgood Marshal, ­reflecting …

    After winning my case with Harriet Elizabeth Brown, I gained respect as a lawyer. In the 1960s I met another Brown, Oliver Brown, and together we went all the way to the Supreme Court and desegregated schools across the nation in my second Brown vs. Board of Education (Topeka, Kansas) case.
    In taking responsibility for the right of equal pay for equal work in Calvert County, Harriet Elizabeth Brown created a domino effect for equal pay.

Switch to Harriet ­Elizabeth Brown, ­retiring as
principal …

    As I look back, I am proud of what I have done and how I made a difference in the lives of future teachers.
    Not only did Mr. Marshall go on to be Justice Marshall, I myself went on to be a principal.
    I think there is a plan for people. I never intended to be a teacher, but it worked out that way. I feel grateful that I was able to make a contribution. It’s not enough to just live and die. It’s important to make a contribution that makes things worthwhile.

•  •   •

Harriet ­Elizabeth Brown lived to be 101 years old and was recognized in the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame before her death in 2009.


Her Name Lives On

The Harriet Elizabeth Brown Commemoration Task Force was created by the General Assembly last year at the request of the Calvert County Commission on Women. It gives Harriet Elizabeth Brown’s name to a soon-to-be-opened community center in Prince Frederick.
    Also under consideration are recommendations to …
    Dedicate 4.6 miles of Maryland Route 2 (from the intersection with Maryland Route 4 to the Anne Arundel County line) as the Harriet Elizabeth Brown Memorial Highway. This stretch runs past the location of the former Mt. Hope School, where Brown was an educator for 40 years.
    Commission a portrait to be displayed in the Calvert County Court House.
    Others ideas include a children’s book, celebrating her birthday, establishing a scholarship in her name, developing a public TV documentary and writing educational materials.