A Love Story
For Decades, Bernard and Ruth Brown Have Broken Ground, Altered History and Worked Together for a Better Community
The unstoppable partnership for Frederick natives Bernard and Ruth Brown began in 1956 when they married and set a course for life here. They had one child, Bernetta R. Brown, their singular joy and their greatest achievement, they say.
Beyond that, all they did was change history. Taken individually, each of the Browns’ stories is compelling. However, their combined journey is accented with history-making “firsts.” The Browns have inspired people from all walks of life and have had a hand in shaping local business, educational, social and political institutions. Now retired, they remain active in charitable and civic organizations and continue to learn and share their considerable knowledge and experience. Theirs is a love story—love of each other, of family and of community.
They met in high school. To hear him tell it, she fell for him because he was a standout basketball player on a lackluster team. Listen to her side and discover she was an “A” student, not to mention an athlete in her own right. As they sit on their couch holding hands in their cozy home on Thomas Avenue, they balk at being described as Lincoln High School’s “it” couple. They acknowledge they were blessed with many friends and focused on academic pursuits and extracurricular activities. Like most of their post-war peers, marrying and starting a family seemed like the most natural thing in the world to them. And helping a friend, neighbor or child deal with a challenge at home, work or school came just as naturally.
Ruth’s career path began when she volunteered as a teacher’s assistant for a kindergarten class while she was a high school student. Bernard later came to the profession as a second career.
Both saw the potential for education to lift individuals, families and communities. They locked arms and grabbed onto the opportunity for formal education.
Ruth went to Virginia State University near Petersburg, Va., choosing it for its combined health and physical education curriculum. She received her bachelor’s degree in Health Education and Physical Education in 1951 and began teaching at Union High School in Bowling Green, Va. By 1961, she was recruited by Frederick County Public Schools, becoming one of the first black teachers in the newly integrated schools here. She taught throughout the county, including a stint at Thurmont High School. The assignment presented some challenges. “One lady said she wouldn’t let her child in my class,” Ruth says. She went into problem-solving mode, met with parents and administrators, and pointed out her innovative teaching methods, explaining that she was there to uplift all students of all races. Her positive approach won over parents and fellow teachers. Her classes filled with students.
Downplaying her role in the integration of Frederick County’s classrooms and gyms, she pointed out that physical education was a requirement for graduation. “So, they got used to me pretty quickly.” She laughs. Throughout her teaching career, she stayed on top of developments in the health field, taking graduate courses at Western Maryland (now McDaniel) College, Frostburg State University, Howard University and the University of Maryland. Her knowledge of health education later landed her jobs at a cancer research lab and at Frederick Memorial Hospital.
Ruth was also a dance instructor who helped choreograph school and community productions throughout the county. Her daughter, an accomplished dancer, created a dance troupe. After Bernetta’s untimely death in 1980 at the age of 19, Ruth kept the organization going, and the Bernetta R. Brown Dance Troupe performed at festivals, parades and recitals from the 1980s into the early 2000s. Ballet slippers, newspaper clippings, photos and dance-related artwork decorate the Brown’s home.
When his country needed him, Bernard answered. Upon graduation from high school, he joined the Army, training in an infantry company out of Indiantown Gap, Pa. He spent two of his six years of military service in Korea, serving in some of the first racially integrated troops. Bernard notes that black and white soldiers performed seamlessly on the battlefield. But, he says, some of the white soldiers had a hard time befriending him back at the base when the guns were silenced. “You didn’t complain, though,” he says. “We were part of [President] Truman’s integration mandate and, overall, we developed well,” and rose to the challenge.
Brown’s experience being on the front lines of combat and integration prepared him for similar challenges back home. In the 1970s he and Ruth worked with other NAACP volunteers in Frederick, gently nudging businesses to drop their endorsements of segregationist policies and politicians such as Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who opposed integration. “We had a list of all the local businesses that supported Wallace for president [in 1972]. Many had signed a petition backing him and that list was printed in the local paper,” Ruth says. “A bunch of us went door to door, asking our black neighbors to stay away from businesses that were Wallace supporters.”
The boycott brought change. “It was needed. It worked,” Bernard says. It also helped spawn the NAACP’s Dialog Groups, small gatherings of black and white citizens who met to talk about enhancing business and family life for all Frederick residents.
When he left the military, Bernard went to work for the Frederick Construction Company where he was employed for 18 years. He also studied at the University of Maryland, Frederick Community College and Hagerstown Community College, earning an advanced professional certificate in the building trades. He became a concrete supervisor at the company and then an industrial arts teacher, spending his initial teaching years at Brunswick High School then moving to West Frederick and New Market middle schools.
Today, his name is synonymous with affordable and fair housing in Frederick. The Bernard W. Brown Community Center at 629 N. Market St. is a testament to his work and commitment. He has been a member of the Housing Authority of the City of Frederick (HACF) Board of Commissioners since 1998, and currently serves as its chair. He is slated to serve through 2017. Teresa Justice, HACF’s executive director, says Brown’s long-term commitment to housing issues in Frederick is deeply rooted. “I think that once you become involved in affordable housing, you recognize its importance as a basic human need, and it is fulfilling to know that you’re involved in providing it to those who need a safe and affordable place to live,” she says.
Bernard’s other major commitment is to the Mountain City Elks Lodge #382, where he serves as the exulted ruler, a post he has held for 46 of the 52 years he has been a member. Reflecting on life in Frederick, past, present and future, he says,
“People have to have a better starting point, to secure a better future.”
Through professional and volunteer service, the Browns have nudged several generations of Frederick residents to the starting gate and urged them to set their sights on the finish line.