Harriet Elizabeth Brown: black history month hidden figure

Harriet Elizabeth Brown was

Because February is Black History Month, I think it’s important to shine a light on a little-known hero in Maryland, Harriet Elizabeth Brown.

Brown challenged a racist system in 1937 when she sued the Calvert County Board of Education for equal pay between black and white teachers. She had taught at the Mt. Hope Colored Elementary School for eight years. Though she had similar educational qualifications and experience as white teachers, Brown earned $600 per year while white teachers earned $1,100.


For Brown, 30 years of age, this was an undertaking of monumental proportion, considering it could have cost her job or ended her entire teaching career. Thurgood Marshall, a few years out of Howard University Law School and working as counsel with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, provided legal representation for Brown. While there was no judicial determination, the county commission intervened and agreed that Brown should get pay equal to that of white teachers in Calvert County. This case provided the precedent for equalization of pay not only in Maryland, but throughout the South. Maryland Gov. Harry Nice endorsed equalization of pay statewide. In 1941, the General Assembly of Maryland enacted Maryland’s Pay Equalization Law. Larry Gibson, a professor at University of Maryland Law School, wrote of this case in his book, “Young Thurgood.”

Brown was unusually brave to challenge the Board of Education for pay equalization. I knew Harriet Elizabeth Brown. She was my principal, years later, at the Mt. Hope Colored Elementary School, which I attended from the first to the sixth grades. I did not know that she was a civil rights pioneer at that time.

Mt. Hope Colored School was a three-room, weather-board school where two grades studied in each room. This school had originally been built in the mid-1920s by Booker T. Washington through the Julius Rosenwald Fund. While the county government operated and maintained schools for blacks, it did not provide for construction of those schools until after 1932 when the fund ceased to exist for that purpose. Incidentally, the first high school for blacks in Calvert County was built in 1939. Brown had come to Calvert County to teach as a 22-year-old and eventually became the principal of Mt. Hope.

Brown was born in Baltimore City in 1907, and her family later moved to Philadelphia. There she attended the prestigious Philadelphia Normal School for Girls. This school, established in 1848, catered to “academically talented young girls” from middle class families. There she learned in the school’s mission that “we would be brave, strong to accept defeat, rebuke, and misfortune, and to turn them into gain, always attempting, at least, the harder task and letting not one golden opportunity pass unchallenged.” Of her suit against Calvert County, Brown is reported to have said, “If I lose my job, at least it’s for something worthwhile.”

After the Philadelphia Normal School For Girls, Brown attended Morgan State College. At Morgan, Brown was ingrained with the notion that she was part of the “talented tenth” of aspiring exceptional leaders who had an abiding responsibility to the black community.

As principal of Mt. Hope Colored School, Brown fought to ensure that we had the necessary resources (even if they were handed down books from the white school) to receive the best possible education. Most of us came from rural backgrounds, including me. Brown worked very well with our three other teachers Gross, Young, and Miles. We saw her as a tough disciplinarian that we didn’t want to cross. We respected her a great deal. We were certain to be on our best behavior if we were in her eyesight. I appreciate what she did to create educational opportunities for my brothers and myself. As I learned about her challenge for equal pay, I’ve gained greater reverence and appreciation for her. She is indeed a black hero.

C. Vernon Gray

The writer is a retired political science professor at Morgan State University and former Howard County Council Member