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Rev. W.R. Brown Sr.

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The Rev. W.R. Brown Sr., who died Thursday at a local hospital, spent half a century addressing African-American congregations in Evansville from his pulpit at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church.

But the white-haired, soft-spoken minister did more than preach, say friends and family members.

He was a moral voice and one of the city's most outspoken civil rights leaders.

"He was my pastor, my brother-in-law and my friend," said Harold Calloway, who owns a State Farm Insurance agency in Evansville.

Calloway called the 90-year-old Brown, who retired in 2003, an eloquent encourager whose ministry was to the church and the community.

"He spoke about opportunity and fairness, issues we still have today ...in a way that let people know a better day was coming," said Calloway. "He'd tell you 'You can do this, keep your head up, keep strong.' He supported us with his vocabulary. I hate to give him up."

When the young seminary graduate from Mississippi arrived in Evansville in fall 1953, the schools were segregated, the movie theaters had banished the city's black residents to the balconies, Miller pool at Mulberry and South Elliott streets was the only pool blacks could use, and there was no place at the Woolworth's lunch counter Downtown for anyone who looked like him.

Brown told his congregation it was time for change.

Not only did he participate in a sit-in at Woolworth's protesting denial of service to blacks, he and other ministers later worked to integrate the other pools. One account says Brown told several women from his church to wear bathing suits to Hartke Pool (which opened in 1959) and "stay there" until someone let them in. They got in.

In 1963, he took a train to Washington, D.C., and stood 10 feet from the rostrum as Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech. Brown had met King at a national Baptist convention years before King grew famous.

Brown served on city boards, including the Human Relations Commission and Area Plan Commission, the Indiana Civil Rights Commission and worked with the Interdenominational Ministers Alliance to improve race relations, alleviate joblessness among young African-Americans, curb the high school drop-out rate and prevent teen pregnancies.

In 1979, he oversaw the centennial of his church at 663 S. Elliott, founded by freed slaves.

He and three other local ministers also survived a fishing accident in 1982 that left them clinging to a capsized boat in cold water for four hours.

During the height of his career, he was nationally known among his peers, had preached in every state and traveled overseas.

Brown, whose father, uncle and older brother were ministers, grew up in Louisville, Miss., in the east-central part of that state.

He came to Evansville to help his brother run a revival in Henderson, Ky., according to Calloway.

Leaders of what was then known as Little Hope Baptist Church were needing a minister, heard Brown speak at the revival and gave him a trial run which promptly turned into a job offer. Little Hope soon became New Hope under Brown.

"My child was the first one he blessed at New Hope," said retired educator Ira Neal. "Rev. Brown was very much a people person. He lived for and with the folk in the community."

Brown, who earned bachelor's degrees from Jackson College in Mississippi and American Baptist Theological Seminary in Tennessee, received his doctor of divinity from Texas Baptist.

He and his wife, Johnnie Ruth, who died a few years ago, have a son, the Rev. W.R. Brown Jr. of Evansville.

"I was a baby when my older sister married Rev. Brown," said Calloway, who's 64. "We were from Philadelpia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were slain in 1964. Now, Philadelphia has a black mayor."

Calloway recalled an act of kindness by Brown in the late 1960s. Calloway was ready to graduate from college when school officials told him he wouldn't be allowed to march in the ceremony and receive his degree "because my folks still owed the college money. Rev. Brown stood for the rest of my bill."
Published in Courier Press from June 3 to June 10, 2010
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