February 1, 2022

Homer S. Brown - The First African-American Judge of Pittsburgh, Pa

Homer S. Brown - The First African-American Judge of Pittsburgh, Pa

This February, we commemorate Black History Month and honor the accomplishments of African-Americans throughout history. One man who made a significant impact in the civil rights movement right here in our region is Homer S. Brown. Brown was the father of the Pennsylvania state Fair Employment Practices Act, a champion for racial equality, and Pittsburgh's first African-American judge. We salute Homer S. Brown during Black History Month as an example of strength and determination in fighting for civil rights.

Brown's Role in the Civil Rights Movement

Many people may not know the name Homer S. Brown, but he was an important figure in Pittsburgh's history. Brown was the city's first black judge, and his legacy is something that should be remembered and celebrated. Despite facing many challenges throughout his life, Brown persevered and made a significant impact on the community. His story is one of courage and determination, and it serves as an inspiration to us all.

"For over fifty years, from the time he received his law degree in 1923 until illness forced him to retire two years before his death in 1975, Judge Brown worked to facilitate positive change within the black community in employment, education, and civil rights. His passion and activism for the promotion of civil rights and his numerous contributions to his local and statewide community secured him a place of honor and integrity in the history of Pennsylvania." (Dudley)

A Trailblazer in the Black Community

Brown was chair of the Friendly Service Committee (successfully reduced crime in the Hill District during the Great Depression), was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1934, and investigated the Pittsburgh Board of Education's refusal to hire black teachers. The lawsuit, argued by black attorneys Richard F. Jones and Joseph Givens, changed the practices of the Board, resulting in the hiring of the district's first full-time African American educator, Lawrence Peeler, within a year of the court case. This investigation facilitated the overhaul of the Board's hiring practices, the passage of several bills that resulted in the "Pittsburgh Package" and created the Housing Authority, and the authoring of a bill in 1945 prohibiting discrimination in employment in Pennsylvania. This bill would earn him the famous title, "Father of the State Fair Employment Practices Act."

"The Father of Firsts"

In addition to being voted the most able member of the House by the Capital News Correspondents' Association in 1943, Brown was also considered by many in the Western Pennsylvania region as a father of "firsts." He was the founder and first president of the Pittsburgh branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP), a position he held for 24 years. In 1943, he became the first African American appointed to the Pittsburgh Board of Education and became the first African American to hold the position of Allegheny County Judge in 1949. Brown was elected to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas in 1956 and remained there until 1975.

Judge Brown's Groundbreaking Rulings

As a judge, Brown was responsible for groundbreaking rulings, including his 1968 ruling that a City of Pittsburgh tax on hospitals, known as the "sick tax," was declared unconstitutional. He also ruled in 1973 that it was not unconstitutional to offer prayers at graduation ceremonies. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld both decisions.

Homer S. Brown's Important Contributions to the Black Community

Brown's endeavors to improve the lives of others in the Pittsburgh community included his work in the legal and political arenas, and through other organization memberships, including serving as Chair of the Board of Directors of the YMCA. He also served as a member of the White House Commission on Education and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. (Allegheny County Bar Association)

The Homer S. Brown Law Association, founded in 1969, is the only African-American law association in Pittsburgh, representing the interests of approximately 200 African-American attorneys and jurists. "The goal of the organization is to protect political and civil rights, increase the legal knowledge of the community, assist local law students, and benefit members by providing employment information. The membership group supports minority lawyers and tracks hiring progress in Pittsburgh and continues to be extremely active in the Pittsburgh community." (Dudley)

Homer S. Brown was a civil rights pioneer and an inspiration to many. He is an excellent example of strength and determination in the face of adversity, and his life story should be shared and remembered during Black History Month and beyond. If you would like to learn more about his life and legacy, please click on the links below.

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