William “Bill” Brown ran his first race in England, rose to prominence at Morgan State University, won races in Europe and South American and then returned to Harford County to coach and teach at Central Consolidated School and later, Bel Air High School.
The hall-of-fame runner and coach was also one of the few African Americans to ever serve in elective office in Harford County, serving as a Bel Air Town Commissioner.
Mr. Brown, who retired from Harford County Public Schools in 1983, died April 25, three days before he would have turned 93, at his home in Silver Spring.
“He was a great dad, he was a great mentor to literally thousands of students,” his daughter, Pamila Brown, of Columbia, said Tuesday. “He was really committed to making a difference.”
Bill Brown was a strong advocate for desegregating public schools in Harford County, which did not formally happen until 1965, more than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation nationwide in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
“He was really committed to improving race relations and to equal justice and to making sure that everybody got treated equally,” his daughter said.
Brown was preceded in death by his wife of 66 years, Gloria Tucker Brown. He and his wife, who died in February of 2017, raised three children in their home on Archer Street, just a short walk from Bel Air High School and the old Bel Air Colored School he attended. The home was built on land his father gave him, next door to the house in which he grew up.
Their daughter, Pamila, is the administrative judge for the Carroll and Howard County District Courts. She said her brother, Michael, who lives in Springfield, Va., is a retired Coast Guard captain, and their brother, Gary, is a firefighter in Mesa, Ariz.
Pamila Brown said her parents had seven grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
She said she inherited a spirit of giving from her mother, a social worker “who gave gifts to everybody,” even the family milkman and mail carrier during the holidays, and a strong work ethic and commitment to “being the best that you can be” from her father.
She recalls being one of the first three African-American children to integrate Bel Air Elementary School in 1960, when she was in first grade.
Brown said her parents were “very understanding” and supportive during her desegregation experience. She said she encountered some students and teachers who were mean, but others who were kind, and she made friends with people she is still friends with today.
She said her parents would tell her that “you’ve got to show them [the community] that you belong here, and you need to work hard and get good grades and conduct yourself well.”
Havre de Grace resident Bobby Parker, 73, a local photographer whose images have been published in The Record and The Aegis newspapers, attended Havre de Grace Consolidated School, the segregated school for black children in the Aberdeen and Havre de Grace areas.
Parker was a member of the track and basketball teams, and he remembers the serious rivalry between his school and the Central Consolidated teams coached by Brown.
“When I ran track for Havre de Grace Consolidated, that’s when I got to know Bill Brown, and that’s when Bill Brown got to know me,” Parker said Tuesday.
He said he and Brown remained friends long after he graduated from high school in 1962.
Parker said Brown “corrected” athletes who were acting up during track meets, even if they were from an opposing team. He said Brown did it quietly and with respect for the young person, though, by taking them aside.
“He wouldn’t embarrass you, he would pull you to the side and correct you,” Parker said. “You have to give the man the respect that he deserved, and he respected you too, in a way that you deserved.”
Brown’s life and accomplishments were chronicled in three consecutive pamphlets published by the African-American History of Harford County Project, a volunteer project to record the history of Harford’s African-American community.
The project started in early 2016 as an initiative of Campaign 42, a community group that works to get more women and minorities elected to local offices.
The pamphlets on Bill Brown were published Jan. 27, Feb. 3 and Feb. 10, 2017.
Roxann Redd-Wallace, co-chairwoman of the project committee, interviewed Bill and Gloria Brown, along with her co-chair, Margaret Ferguson.
“They were so welcoming and open and willing to share parts of their life,” Redd-Wallace said.
Redd-Wallace referred to Bill Brown as a “giant” in the community.
“We’ve lost one of our giants,” she said.
Redd-Wallace attended Central Consolidated from first through sixth grade, before HCPS desegregated. She said Bill Brown worked more with high schoolers, rather than younger students, but even the elementary schoolers knew and respected the coach and teacher.
“His presence was known,” she recalled. “When Coach Brown was around, everybody knew to toe the line.”
Redd-Wallace said she remembers Brown as a humble person, despite his accomplishments.
“He always gave credit to those teachers and individuals who came before him,” she said. “I really appreciated that about Coach Brown.”
Brown ran his first race as an 18-year-old soldier stationed in England in 1944. It was a Special Services event that was an alternative to a 21-mile training march. Wearing old GI gym shoes and not knowing exactly the distance he was running, he lost the race by just a few feet to a top-ranked, touring runner.
Two years later, having recovered from shrapnel wounds he sustained in France, he enrolled in Morgan State.
“After that first race, I knew I could run,” he recalled in a 1983 interview for The Aegis. “But I didn’t carry it any further until I got to Morgan State.”
He drew the attention of track coach Ed Hurt when he outran a scholarship runner on a friendly wager. Morgan track teams of the late 1940s and early 50s had many outstanding runners, such as Olympic 400-meter champ George Rhoden from Jamaica.
Even as a newcomer, however, Brown was not over-shadowed by his world-class teammates. He improved rapidly, and in 1950 won the 880-yard run in the NCAA Championships in Minneapolis. In the same year, he ran on Morgan’s mile relay team that won the national title in record time. He was selected three times to tour as a member of the U.S. all-star team, running and winning races in several European countries. Selected in 1951 to the U.S. team for the Pam American Games in Buenos Aires, Brown, then 6 feet 4, 187 pounds, won a gold medal in the 4x400 relay and a silver medal in the 800 meters, losing by only a tenth of a second to Olympic champion Mal Whitfield.
His track career ended just months before the 1952 Olympic Trials. The pressures of working and supporting a young family made training all but impossible. He turned his focus to teaching and coaching at Central Consolidated School in Hickory, one of four schools in Harford County for African American students. In the 15 years he coached at Central, his teams won eight state titles in track, six in cross country and two in basketball.
His athletes excelled despite scare resources. He improvised hurdles from broomsticks, and his runners at times raced barefooted for lack of track shoes. Central Consolidated closed in 1965 when Harford schools were desegregated. Brown moved to Bel Air High School, where three years later, he was appointed athletic director. In 1967 and 68, his track teams at Bel Air won back-to-back state championships. His 1966 sprint relay team set a state record that stood for 25 years. He was also a member of the coaching staff that guided Bel Air to its last undefeated football season in 1965.
In 1976, he was elected to the Maryland Athletic Hall of Fame and later to the Harford County Public Schools Educator Hall of Fame. He also has served as member of the Bel Air Town Planning Commission, was an organizer of the town’s recreation council and was the first African American member of the Town Council.
He is survived by sons Michael, of Springfield, Va., and Gary, of Mesa, Ariz., and daughter Pamila Brown, of Columbia. He will be interred next to his wife in the Bel Air Memorial Gardens on Friday, May 18, following the funeral at 11 a.m. at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va. His viewing will be held 6 to 9 p.m. on May 17 at Pope Funeral Home, 5538 Marlboro Pike in Forestville, 20747. A second viewing will be from 9 to 10:30 a.m. before the funeral Friday at the church in Alexandria.
This story is updated with a correction regarding Mr. Brown being a member of coaching staff of Bel Air High’s undefeated 1965 football team.