Dr. Millicent Brown, portrait by Gately Williams
Speaking Up: Whether on national television, as in last fall’s PBS NewsHour’s taping at Circular Congregational Church, in a school board meeting, or talking with groups of local school children, Millicent Brown continues to shine a light on racism and injustice.
The First Children: Though doors opened for Millicent and her 10 fellow plaintiffs—(pictured from left to right, standing) Clarence Alexander, Barbara Ford, Jacqueline Ford, Ralph Stoney Dawson, Millicent Brown, Clarice Hines, (and seated, left to right) Cassandra Alexander, Gerald Alexander, Gail Ford, Oveta Glover, and (not pictured) Valerie Wright—to attend peninsula public schools in September 1963, many faced ostracism, and worse. “Some of the others were much younger than I was,” says Millicent, who still feels guilty for not being able to support her fellow Rivers High attendee, eighth grader Jackie Ford, whom she wouldn’t cross paths with during the school day. “They were more vulnerable than I was.”
Millicent (pictured in the 1966 Rivers High School yearbook) was mostly ostracized during her time there, saying in her oral history, “The Rivers years... made me understand that you can survive when people don’t like you. You can achieve when they don’t want you. It just got me ready for the hard knocks of life.”
(Counterclockwise from left) The front page of The News and Courier, as well as newspapers across the country, featured Millicent Brown’s first day at Rivers High School, during which three bomb threats forced students to be evacuated into the parking lot. Further down King Street, Clarence Ford escorted his daughter, Barbara, and Oveta Glover into the formerly all-white James Simons Elementary School.
Family Ties: The Browns lived amid a vibrant black middle-class neighborhood on the peninsula. “There were black doctors, lawyers, business owners, well-to-do people and poor, too, but it was an intact community,” says Millicent. (Clockwise from top) With her parents, MaeDe and J. Arthur, and sister Minerva, the original plaintiff in the school suit; at an A. B. Rhett School program in 1954; working with Operation Crossroads Africa in the 1970s (the program was sponsored by the State Department to expose Africans to Lowcountry culture); with older sister Joenelle (far left, back) circa 1957 at a black-owned resort in the Catskill Mountains frequented by the Brown family
Millicent’s father, J. Arthur Brown, was a businessman who led the NAACP’s Charleston chapter (1955 to 1960) and statewide chapter (1960 to 1965).
The family’s home at 270 Ashley Avenue was one of many houses and apartment buildings J. Arthur Brown’s father built. The home was lost when the Crosstown “eviscerated an intact black community,” says Millicent.
The J. Arthur Brown papers at the Avery Research Center reveal how the family was on the front line of local civil rights battles, and often on the receiving end of hateful tirades.
Lesson Plans: Brown travels to interview other “first children” and to speak to universities, schools, and groups, as seen here at the Avery Research Center, telling the “Somebody Had to Do It” story. “Were you scared?” a Montessori third grader asked at the end of the talk. “Yes,” she said. “I was scared.”