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Thomas Briscoe, Civil Rights activist, military veteran and Columbia pioneer, dies at 93

Thomas Briscoe, Civil Rights activist, military veteran and Columbia pioneer, dies at 93
Thomas Briscoe. (Submitted photo)

When Thomas Briscoe was a young man – before Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus in 1955 – he, too, told a Southern bus driver that he would be sitting up front, in the area reserved for whites.

Unlike Parks, Briscoe wasn't detained, but his friends say he was just as determined to stand up against injustice.

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"If he thought it was an important thing, he would really get into it, and he wouldn't just talk," said the Rev. Mimi Mathews. "He wasn't a watcher, he was a doer."

The Civil Rights activist, decorated military veteran and Columbia pioneer died June 18 at the age of 93.

Born to William L. and Hattie Briscoe in Baltimore City on Aug. 12, 1921, Thomas Herman Briscoe was one of seven children.

He graduated from Frederick Douglass High School, where he served as senior class president, before attending Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and Morgan State College (now University), where he received his bachelor's degree. He later received his master's in social work from Howard University.

It was Briscoe's youth in Baltimore that first sparked in him a passion for civil rights. As a young man, he was inspired by NAACP demonstrations against the refusal of lunch counter and department store owners in downtown Baltimore to serve black customers.

Briscoe spent 30 years in the military, serving as a medic in the Italian campaign during World War II, and in the National Guard in Germany during the Korean War. It was when he returned from his duty in Europe that he was inspired to take a stand for equality.

Along with nine other black officers, Briscoe refused to return to the Maryland National Guard, which was still segregated despite an order from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, until it was integrated. With support from the NAACP and the Afro-American newspaper, the officers were successful. Briscoe was later named the second black colonel in the Maryland National Guard.

While serving in the National Guard during the 1960s, Briscoe helped to facilitate discussions between police, community leaders and citizens in the midst of civil unrest on Maryland's Eastern Shore. For his leadership, he received the Maryland Distinguished Service Cross, the state's highest military honor. He was also inducted into the ROTC Hall of Fame at his alma mater, Morgan State.

After retiring from the military, Briscoe embarked on a career in social work, first at the Bureau of Parks and then in Urban Services at the Bureau of Housing and Community Development.

Briscoe and his wife, Roberta, were among Columbia's "pioneers" as some of the first to move to Jim Rouse's fledgling planned community in 1968.

It was there that he met Mathews, who lived with her husband in the same neighborhood in the Village of Wilde Lake.

"He was very active in the community," Mathews recalled. The two became better acquainted as fellow congregation members at St. John's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, where Mathews is now a deacon.

There, he was known as the church's unofficial photographer. Camera in tow, "he'd show up at any event just to make sure we had pictures," said Mathews.

Briscoe was a devoted member of the organizations he joined – Mathews said he rarely missed a Sunday service, and as a member of the Rotary Club of Columbia, he had perfect attendance for more than 45 years.

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He contributed to the Howard County community through his active work with the NAACP, where he helped to found a local chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. He also was involved in creating Christmas in April, now called Rebuilding Together, an organization that assembles volunteers to provide free home repairs to low-income residents, and served on the Howard County College Board of Trustees during its early days.

Briscoe won many awards for his lifelong service, including the Howard County Lifetime Achievement Award and the "Geri" award for volunteer service. His volunteer work was entered into the Congressional Record during the 98th Congress, and he was inducted into the Maryland Senior Citizens Hall of Fame. He was honored at NAACP galas in 1999 and 2008.

"He was a very giving person, a true gentleman," said longtime friend Becky Mangus, a fellow member of the Rotary Club. "He was respectful of others and he commanded respect."

"He was a wonderful example of what we're supposed to be doing," Mathews said. "We're supposed to take care of the community and give back, and that was always foremost in his mind."

Briscoe was preceded in death by Roberta, his wife of 45 years, and his daughter Carolyn. He is survived by daughter Iris Briscoe, son Herman Briscoe, four grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.

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