William “Bill” Brown, a Morgan State University track and field star who later became a Bel Air High School teacher and coach and was the first African American to serve as a member of the Bel Air Town Council, died April 25 from heart failure at his Silver Spring home. He was 92.
“Mr. Brown was someone you could depend upon to give you great advice. He knew people and he knew politics,” said Harford County Circuit Court Judge Angela M. Eaves.
“He had been through a lot growing up in Harford County. I loved hearing the stories he told of those days,” said Judge Eaves, who lives in Havre de Grace. “He was always positive, upbeat. He was a voice of reason. He bridged generations.”
William Brown was the son of Thomas Mitchell Brown, a Bel Air postal worker, and Mattie K. “Kate” Robinson, a homemaker. He was born and raised in Bel Air.
After graduating in 1940 from Bel Air’s Colored School, he moved to Baltimore and worked as a machinist until he was drafted into the Army in 1943.
He landed in Normandy nearly a month after the June 6, 1944, Allied landings and was wounded clearing a minefield. He sustained serious injuries to his midsection, arm and legs from shrapnel. Even though he qualified for the Purple Heart, he never received it. When he applied years later, it was denied because a fire in a warehouse in St. Louis had destroyed the record of his injury, family members said.
Mr. Brown ran his first race as an 18-year-old soldier stationed in England in 1944, in an event that was an alternative to a 21-mile training march. Wearing old gym shoes and not knowing exactly the distance he was running, he lost by a few feet to a top-ranked, touring runner.
“After that first race, I knew I could run,” he recalled in a 1983 interview with The Aegis newspaper.
Discharged with the rank of sergeant in 1946, Mr. Brown returned home to find Jim Crow and segregation still rampant in Harford County. One situation involved a segregated movie theater on Main Street in Bel Air that forced blacks to sit in the balcony, reachable only by outside stairs. They were not allowed to purchase food or drink in the lobby.
The situation angered Mr. Brown’s father, who told his son, “I refuse to pay my good money to let them treat you like this. If you want to see a movie that bad, I’ll drive you to Baltimore first before I let you go there.”
Mr. Brown enrolled in 1946 at what was then Morgan State College. He came to the attention of legendary track coach Edward P. “Eddie” Hurt after he outran a scholarship runner. In 1950, he won the 880-yard race at the NCAA Championship in Minneapolis, and that same year ran on Morgan’s mile relay team that won the national title in record time.
He was hired in 1950 to teach physical education and health and coach track and basketball at Central Consolidated School, a segregated high school in Hickory. At Central, his teams won several track and field championships as well as a basketball championship, “despite having no track and using chairs and broomsticks for hurdles and no real equipment,” according to a family profile. At times his runners raced barefoot for lack of track shoes.
In 1951, he married his college sweetheart, Gloria Tucker, who was an English major and a majorette with the Morgan State Marching Band.
In his own track career, Mr. Brown was selected three times to tour as a member of the U.S. all-star team, running and winning races in Europe. Selected in 1951 to the U.S. team for the Pam American Games in Buenos Aires, Mr. Brown — at 6 feet 4 inches, 187 pounds — won gold in the 4x400 relay and silver in the 800 meters, losing by one-tenth of a second to Olympic champion Mal Whitfield.
“He competed internationally for three years, and he would likely have become an Olympian, perhaps even an Olympic champion,” said Bill Blewett, a track and cross-country coach at Fallston High School who writes for The Aegis. “But out of college in 1952, he had a young family to support and raise, and the economics of the times made training for the Olympics impossible.”
He returned to Central, one of four segregated high schools in Harford County, and during his 15 years there, his teams won eight state titles in track, six in cross-country and two in basketball.
“He was highly respected and beloved by those he coached and taught,” Mr. Blewett wrote in an email.
He later obtained a master’s degree from Temple University in Philadelphia.
“He was a great mentor to literally thousands of students,” said his daughter, Pamila Brown of Columbia, an administrative judge for Howard County District Court.
Mr. Brown was a staunch 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 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.
Central Consolidated closed in 1965 when Harford schools were desegregated. Mr. Brown moved to Bel Air High School, where he was later appointed athletic director. His track teams at Bel Air won state championships in 1967 and 1968. He was also a member of the coaching staff that guided Bel Air to three straight undefeated seasons in football.
Mr. Brown was appointed to the Bel Air Town Planning Commission and became the first African American member of the town council in 1978.
He retired in 1983 and moved to Jacksonville, Fla. He later moved to Silver Spring and resided there for 12 years.
“Thirty years ago we started a youth cross-country series in Bel Air, and when we searched for a name for it, the choice became obvious: the Bill Brown Youth Cross-Country Series,” Mr. Blewett wrote. “The program is still going strong. It has inspired hundreds of children to take up running and many go on to compete in high school and college.”
Mr. Brown was elected to the Maryland Sports Hall of Fame and the Morgan State University Athletic Hall of Fame, and in 2001 became a member of the Harford County Public Schools Educator Hall of Fame. He also served as a member of the Governor’s Commission on Physical Education and was a member of the Interracial Dialogue Group.
He enjoyed watching baskeball, football and golf, which he continued playing until age 89. He also liked listening to jazz, taking cruises and traveling internationally.
Funeral services for Mr. Brown will be held at 11 a.m. Friday at Alfred Street Baptist Church, 301 South Alfred St., Alexandria, Va.
In addition to his daughter, he is surived by two sons, Michael W. Brown of Springfield, Va., and Gary W. Brown of Mesa, Ariz.; a brother, Mitchell Brown of East Lansing, Mich.; seven grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.