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Death Notice Guestbook

Lawyer Byrd Brown dies; giant in civil rights struggle

Friday, May 04, 2001

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Legend has it that Byrd Brown was preparing to join some high school buddies in cutting class one day -- but they wouldn't let him. His classmates knew that success awaited the handsome, charismatic son of Homer S. Brown, Allegheny County's first black judge, and Wilhelmina Byrd Brown, a civil rights activist.

Byrd Brown during his 1989 run for mayor of Pittsburgh

"No, you're not going with us," he was told. "You're going to be somebody."

It didn't take long. More than 40 years before he ran for mayor on the slogan "Byrd is the Word," Mr. Brown became the first black student to start at quarterback for his high school football team.

For much of his 71 years, the prominent lawyer and civil rights activist continued to call plays -- in the community, in courtrooms, in Hill District streets charred by race riots and in the board room of the Pittsburgh Foundation. He ran fourth among five candidates in the 1989 mayoral race.

Mr. Brown, 71, died yesterday at UPMC-Presbyterian after a battle with emphysema that included a lung transplant and complications from anti-rejection medication.

Mayor Tom Murphy said that "Pittsburghers, especially younger African-Americans, need to know Byrd Brown for something more than that he was a successful and talented attorney. Byrd Brown was an African-American who stood in the front lines of the civil rights movement and faced down enormous hatred and prejudice. It takes a rare kind of courage to be able to do that."

Louis "Hop" Kendrick of East Liberty, who marched with Mr. Brown to desegregate Pittsburgh public schools, knew Mr. Brown during his boyhood on Anaheim Street in an affluent section of the Hill District called Sugar Top.

"I thought he symbolized all the things that we should aspire to be," Kendrick said. "He was above reproach. He was always accessible. He had a sense of commitment.... He was financially independent. They couldn't buy him off. They couldn't offer him a job. They couldn't offer him a check. He wasn't for sale."

Mr. Brown was the grandson of the Rev. William Roderick Brown, a North Side preacher. His father served in the state Legislature and drafted one of the first pieces of Pennsylvania legislation that prohibited discrimination in public places such as swimming pools. When Thurgood Marshall came to town, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice dined at Homer Brown's home.

Whether persuading a jury or energizing a group of construction workers fighting to work at the U.S. Steel building or Three Rivers Stadium, Mr. Brown was warm and engaging, charming and articulate. He mesmerized and motivated the black community with dynamic speeches.

Tom Hollander, a Downtown lawyer, worked with Mr. Brown in the civil rights movement and nominated him to the board of directors of the Pittsburgh Foundation in 1988.

"He was as good an orator as I've ever heard," Hollander said. "He was dynamite."

In 1958, Mr. Brown was elected president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a post he held until 1971.

"Everything that we started in the movement occurred while Byrd was president," said Kendrick.

In the late 1950s, there were no black meter-readers at Duquesne Light and no blacks driving Pepsi trucks, trolleys or buses, Kendrick recalled.

In August of 1963, Mr. Brown and Livingstone Johnson, then chairman of the United Negro Protest Committee, led a demonstration outside the Sixth Avenue offices of Duquense Light.

The result, said former NAACP president Harvey Adams, was that Duquesne Light became a good corporate neighbor, hiring blacks throughout its ranks.

In addition to community service, Mr. Brown also gave generously of his legal talents.

"Pro bono was his middle name," Adams said. "He did a thorough job whether the client had a nickel or nothing. He made them work to put a person in jail."

Mr. Brown's success showed in his elegant suits, property holdings, trips to the Caribbean and fondness for sports cars.

"He never apologized for being born in a family that was well off," Kendrick recalled. "If you said to him, 'You were born with a golden spoon in your mouth,' he said, 'Thank God for it."'

But when Mr. Brown walked into Eddie's on Wylie Avenue, everyone asked how he was doing and called him by his first name.

"They called him Byrd out of love and admiration," Kendrick said.

Mr. Brown shared his success with the community, according to Alfreda Tyson of Penn Hills, who said Mr. Brown donated regularly and generously to college scholarships given by a non-profit organization called Hand in Hand.

In 1970, Mr. Brown challenged William Moorhead, a longtime incumbent U.S. congressman. Kendrick said many blacks voted for Moorhead, believing he was a liberal.

Wendell G. Freeland, a Downtown lawyer who was a president of the Urban League, recalled that Mr. Brown filed successful civil rights litigation challenging the local Board of Realtors for perpetuating racism in housing.

Mr. Brown also represented Oswald Nickens, a black gynecologist who had to bring a lawsuit in order to buy a piece of property in Stanton Heights.

After graduating from Schenley High School in 1947, Mr. Brown earned a bachelor of arts degree and a law degree from Yale.

His Yale contemporaries included William F. Buckley, Pat Robertson and George H.W. Bush.

"Some of the students at Yale treated him as if he were some animal foreign to them," said Freeland. "It was a brand new experience for him and the white people who were there."

Pat Robertson's father was a segregationist senator, recalled Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge R. Stanton Wettick. "Pat wouldn't acknowledge his presence. There's no question [Byrd] was a fish out of water."

In the courtroom, Mr. Brown was an effective lawyer.

"He was incredibly smart and had a good understanding of how things worked," Wettick said. "He was extremely verbal and always got to the right point quickly and clearly."

U.S. District Judge Gary Lancaster worked for Mr. Brown from 1981 to 1987.

"Byrd was a terrific mentor and teacher," he said.

"Byrd could be very charming, funny. But he was also something of a taskmaster. He did not accept sloppy work [or] accept second-rate excuses. You were to be prepared. You were to be on time."

Mr. Brown was a boxing fan. Lancaster recalled an incident that took place in a hotel lobby in the 1950s:

"This guy came over and started flirting with his girlfriend. All of a sudden he realized it was Sugar Ray Robinson. Byrd got up to his face. So they glared at each other, and Sugar Ray laughed at him and said, 'Get out of here.' Byrd didn't have any illusions that the [fight] would last long."

If Mr. Brown knew when to retreat, he also knew how to negotiate.

Rev. Leroy Patrick, pastor emeritus of Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Homewood, recalled that when Warner Cable came to Pittsburgh in the late 1970s, Mr. Brown and Harvey Adams arranged for company stock to be given away to several local charities. Later, when Warner Cable was bought out, Patrick's church received $300,000 for its stock.

Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith practiced law with Mr. Brown from 1972 until her election in 1987.

"As a lawyer," she said "what I remember most are his sharp litigation skills, his learning in the law, his compassion, sensitivity, his toughness all rolled into one. He was probably one of the best trial lawyers that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has ever had."

Smith found it ironic that Mr. Brown died on the day of the annual human-rights dinner his mother helped found more than 40 years ago.

In 1989, Mr. Brown kicked off his campaign for mayor from the pulpit of Central Baptist Church in the Hill District.

Joseph K. Williams III, a Downtown lawyer, served as the attorney for Mr. Brown's mayoral campaign.

"Clearly he was the most talented candidate out of that field, Williams said. "But it wasn't based on merit. Too bad Pittsburgh wasn't ready for him."

Voters elected Sophie Masloff instead.

When Williams was offered a job as a city magistrate, Mr. Brown dissuaded him from accepting.

"He was offended by the idea that I was thinking about taking the job to be employed," Williams recalled. "He felt that it was important that in each generation there would be at least one of us who stays independent, just so we can tell the truth. He believed that an employee is, inherently, in a compromised position. How can you tell the truth about social or racial issues when you are employed?"

Alfred Wishart, executive director of the Pittsburgh Foundation, said Mr. Brown "served with great sensitivity and distinction and insight and intellect, even when his illness made it difficult for him to attend the meetings. He came and stayed as long as he could.

"He was a very articulate spokesman on behalf of fairness and equity and one of the real giants . . . in civic and business leadership."

Arthur Edmunds of Monroeville, a retired Urban League leader, said Mr. Brown "gave leadership at a time when it was absolutely necessary to carry on the fight. . . He got out in front and brought people along with him. That was, I think, his great contribution."

Surviving are his wife, Barbara of Oakland; two daughters, Cortlyn Wilhelmina Brown and Patricia Brown Stephens, both of Pittsburgh, and his former wife, Marilyn Parker of Pittsburgh.

Visitation will be Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m. in Ebenezer Baptist Church, 2001 Wylie Ave., Hill District. A funeral will be held in the church at 11 a.m. Monday. Interment will follow in Allegheny Cemetery, Lawrenceville.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial contributions to the Wilhelmina Byrd R. Brown NAACP Scholarship fund, 4255 Parkman Ave., Pittsburgh, PA. 15213.

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