Brown, Roscoe. Bronx African American History Project. By Mark Naison. Fordham University Project, October, 2008.
BRONX AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY PROJECT
INTERVIEWER: Mark Naison
INTERVIEWEE: Roscoe Brown
SUMMARY BY: Patrick O’Donnell
Keywords: Tuskegee Airmen, World War II, Great Depression, black middle class, Washington, DC, Civil Rights, New York public education, social reform, racial integration, NYU, community organizing, Bronx, Bronx Community College, Jesse Jackson, CUNY, college administration, public housing, APEX, SEEK
Roscoe Brown is the head of a Center for Urban Education at CUNY. He grew up in Washington, DC during the Great Depression. Educated at Dunbar high school in DC and Springfield College in Massachusetts, Brown joined the Tuskegee Airmen in 1943. At Springfield, Brown was one of only 15 black students. He studied Pre-Med and played football, basketball and lacrosse—in fact, he was one of the first black lacrosse players in America.
Brown flew 68 missions with the airmen, and participated in the longest mission of all time: a 1600-mile round trip, escorting B-17 planes to Berlin. He was the first pilot to shoot down German fighter jets over Berlin. Despite their successes, when the war was over, Brown and the rest of the airmen faced continued segregation and racism in the States. Brown married a woman from New York after the war and moved to the Bronx. For a brief time he worked with the Welfare Department as an investigator and as a Recreation Leader with the Department of Education. After a stint teaching and coaching many sports at West Virginia State, he returned to New York to study exercise physiology at NYU. After earning his PhD, he became an instructor and then a full professor, teaching kinesiology and sports medicine. During this time Brown pursued his parallel interests in public education, integration, and social demographics. He was a key player in various pre-Civil Rights integrations, such as the first court-ordered integration of public schools in the North (in New Rochelle), in 1952. He also was a factor in the first integration of public recreational facilities, in Baltimore County. In 1964, Brown founded the APEX program, which was designed to help lower-income families obtain a college education. This was the basis for CUNY’s SEEK program. During the NYU years Brown began collaborating with Bob Williams and helped found organizations that promoted the connections between sports, education, and social responsibility. He also helped establish an interdisciplinary Institute for African American Studies at NYU. This was the beginning of Brown’s collaboration with CUNY, which had more black students and hence more demand and support for the programs Brown was trying to establish. He became the president of Bronx Community College in 1977. While he had been involved in Washington Square/Village politics at NYU, during this time, Brown was increasingly involved in Bronx politics and city governance. He was a Bronx delegate for Jessie Jackson in 1983 and 1984, and he worked to restore BCC’s campus and surrounding areas during the Bronx’s financial troubles by forging relationships with other Bronx institutions (including Fordham, Bronx Arts Museum, Botanical Gardens, Zoo…) and politicians. He also worked to improve funding for city housing, alongside then-mayor Ed Koch. He joined the board of the Phipps Homes and presided over that particular complex’s rehabilitation. On the national stage, he worked with the Carter and Jesse Jackson campaigns. Turning down the opportunity to run for Congress, Brown founded Bronx Net public TV, and found that his social and political commitments on both local and national stages came back to strengthen the once-troubled Bronx communities which he had worked to support. Today Brown looks upon a much better-integrated but still uneven social landscape, and claims that there is still much work to be done to remedy the problems of prejudice and inequality.