- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Harriet Elizabeth Brown knew that prior to the 1930s in her home state of Pennsylvania, black and white teachers made the same annual salary for performing the same duties.
In the 1930s, she worked as a teacher in Calvert County when she discovered that black teachers made less money than white teachers. Her curiosity about why this was drove her to make a change in the county that spurred the fight for equal pay for black teachers throughout the state of Maryland.
“When she came here from Pennsylvania, teachers in Pennsylvania, they all got the same amount of money,” said Ruth Reid, a longtime friend of Brown. “When she came here and found out that it was different, she was curious. She wanted to know why is it different and what [she could] do about it.”
Brown, who died Jan. 1, 2009, at the age of 101, with the help of NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall, filed a petition in November 1937 in Calvert County Circuit Court challenging the inequality of separate salary scales for teachers based on race. A settlement was reached with the Calvert County Board of Education that December to equalize pay by August 1939.
Brown had been a teacher in the county for eight years in 1937 when she discovered black teachers made significantly less money than white teachers, according to an Equalization of Teachers’ Salaries document written by the NAACP in Brown’s family file at the Calvert County Historical Society. The document further states Brown was “a graduate of the Philadelphia, Pa., Normal School and has taken courses at Hampton Institute” and had a principal’s certificate, but was making $600 annually compared to the $1,100 annually a white teacher was paid.
Reid said Brown discovered the unequal pay after speaking to some of her white friends, who told her how much they made. Brown then decided to do some research, Reid said, and contacted the NAACP headquarters and asked them to investigate.
Brown received a response Aug. 27, 1937, from Emolia P. McMillan with the NAACP suggesting she write to the organizations attorney, Marshall.
“Tell him where you teach, how long you’ve taught, your qualifications and present salary, your inability to fight the case alone (i.e. financially) and ask him to proceed with the case,” McMillan states in the handwritten letter.
Marshall agreed to help Brown with her case and the petition was filed Nov. 11, 1937, in Calvert County Circuit Court.
Reid said Brown told her she felt that because the NAACP agreed to take the case that her claims did have merit and that she was going to be successful with her petition. Reid said she once asked Brown what gave her the courage to move forward with the case and whether she was worried she would lose her job because of it.
“Her response was, ‘Even if I lose my job, at least I would lose it for something worthwhile,’” Reid said.
Brown’s was the second petition filed in Maryland seeking equalization of pay for black teachers, according to documents in Brown’s family file. The first was filed by William Gibbs in Montgomery County in 1936. When Gibbs found out about Brown’s case, he sent her a letter dated Dec. 17, 1937, congratulating her on taking steps to equalize pay for black teachers in Calvert County. “Such an act will mean much to your coworkers and the race,” Gibbs wrote.
The petition filed in November 1937 by the NAACP on behalf of Brown sought a writ of mandamus to compel the Calvert County Board of Education “to adopt and establish salary schedules for teachers and principals in Calvert County without distinction as to race or color of teacher,” according to NAACP documents in Brown’s family file.
The salary difference, the petition alleged, was “unlawful, arbitrary and in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States,” according to NAACP reports in Brown’s family file.
The settlement the board of education agreed to in December 1937 phased in equal pay in three steps by August 1939, historical society documents state. In the first year, black teachers would get a third of the difference in pay; in the second year, they would get another third of the difference; and the third year, pay for black teachers would be equal to white teachers.
In a June 24, 1994, article in The Calvert Recorder [“History catches up with octogenarian”], Brown said of the settlement, “For those days, it was a remarkable victory because Calvert was a traditional Southern County.”
Brown was “really, really elated when she was finally successful,” Reid said. Although Brown was excited that things were changing, Reid said she was not “puffed up” or boastful about what she had accomplished.
“She wasn’t the kind of person that would point her finger and say, ‘I did this.’ She felt that not only her, but other people, benefited, and that there were other people who were out there struggling to … do the same thing,” Reid said.
Subsequently, because of Brown’s action, then-Gov. Harry Nice called for equalization of salaries throughout Maryland, according to documents in Brown’s family file.
According to a Calvert Retired Teachers’ Association newsletter from April 1994, Brown was inducted into the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame that March “for her unique contribution to the field of education.” Brown’s case was a turning point of the fight for equal pay in Maryland, the newsletter states, and had an effect throughout the country.
Reid said she met Brown in about 1960 when Reid first moved to the county. Reid worked in the school system as a type of social worker, she said, and first met Brown in a professional manner.
“We struck up conversations, and then when we had activities outside of the school system, I learned a lot more about her that way,” Reid said. “Later, we had little club meetings [and] ladies groups, and she attended and we always talked.”
Outside of school, Brown enjoyed bowling with her sister, Regina, Reid said. Reid would accompany the two sisters during their bowling trips even though she didn’t bowl herself, “but I liked to look at it,” she said. Reid said Brown enjoyed playing basketball and traveling to places including Europe, South America and Japan, and belonged to “a number of community organizations,” such as teachers groups and her church.
An important quality Brown had that Reid said she and other friends of Brown valued was how supportive she was of other people.
“If there was something that you really wanted to do and believed it, then she believed you could do it and she helped you in any way that she could help you,” Reid said. “She was a good role model, for not only the older people, but she was a good role model for younger people.”
Reid said Brown never raised her voice when speaking to children, and described Brown as “mild-mannered but forceful enough” that when she spoke, children listened.
Reid said other people can take away a lesson from Brown that they can feel good about themselves and make a change without being arrogant.
“If you’re dedicated to doing something, you’re going to follow it all the way through,” Reid said. “Just acknowledge that you’re human and you need support as well as being supportive of other people. That’s what [Brown] did.”