Roscoe Brown passed away just short of two weeks ago. He was 94 years old. A man of enormous accomplishment, he came of age at a time when American institutions were segregated, lynching of blacks occurred on a regular basis in many parts of the country, and being born black essentially guaranteed that anything you achieved in this world would happen with the scales weighted decidedly against you. Roscoe calmly and determinedly pushed back against all that, and through his many achievements brought about great change. We miss his leadership.
Roscoe did not live to see the horrific events of the last week: two more black men senselessly killed at the hands of police under very questionable circumstances, this time in Louisiana and Minnesota; and the depravity of one deranged man who reacted to those incidents by killing five white police officers who were protecting a group of peaceful “Black Lives Matter” supporters in Dallas.
I know it would have been very painful for Roscoe to have to talk about these issues. It seems that in many ways, despite all the progress he and other leaders made, America is still two nations, one black and one white, divided by racial politics, a biased criminal justice system, and socio-economic structures that reinforce disparities instead of easing them. Of course, Roscoe Brown and his generation had it much worse.
Roscoe Brown was born in Washington, D.C., in 1922, growing up in a city where Jim Crow still ruled. He attended segregated Dunbar High School. These were the days when blacks took their lives in their hands if they tried to register and vote in many states. Black travelers could not eat at most restaurants or stay at many hotels or motels. Bathrooms and drinking fountains were segregated. Blacks were clearly defined as second class citizens.
Flying planes was a passion for Roscoe, so he joined the Army Air Corps for flight training during World War II. This was in the South of the 1940s. At the time, the accepted view of blacks in the military was that they were not equally capable as their white peers. Roscoe had to confront lowered expectations and flagrant racism in the military while he trained as part of a segregated unit in Alabama, a unit that became famous as the Tuskegee Airmen.
He flew 68 combat missions in Europe, many of them protecting U.S. bombers over Germany. The Tuskegee Airmen became known at the time as “Red Tails” because they painted the tails of their planes red. As part of the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group, he was the first U.S. pilot to shoot down a German jet, a Messerschmitt Me-262 jet fighter, while flying his P-51 Mustang, a propeller plane. Subsequently, he was promoted to captain and squadron commander, and later received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with eight Oak Leaf Clusters.
After the war, he came to New York and earned his masters and doctorate at New York University, then devoted a lifetime to education, including a post as president of Bronx Community College. Over the years, he also became an unofficial advisor to many leaders in the black community.
The older generation of black New Yorkers is sometimes criticized for not doing enough to encourage and promote the next generation of black leadership. But that wasn’t Roscoe’s way. I will always remember him as someone who continually urged me to reach beyond the everyday tasks of my job as president of the Community Service Society. Just a few weeks before he passed he spoke to me, encouraging me in my efforts in aiding poor and low-income New Yorkers.
Emphasis on Education
In an interview I did with Roscoe in 1995, when he was director for the Center of Education Policy at CUNY, he spoke of the importance of all public schools to provide the opportunity for children to succeed in life. He emphasized that when basic services like education are imperiled, it is up to society to rise up and challenge those who would shortchange the next generation.
He talked about the need for funding equity, explaining the ways that money does make a difference in educational attainment. And he believed that a high level of education, from pre-school on up, is in everyone’s interests.
In 2007, Roscoe and several other surviving pilots received the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the Tuskegee Airmen. A few years later, he was an advisor on a film that was made about the group.
Roscoe also received numerous awards and honors for scholarly and community activities, among them, the NAACP Freedom Award, the Congressional Award for Service to the African-American Community, and the New York Urban League’s Distinguished Citizen Award.
Roscoe Brown lived a full life. When I think of all that he accomplished, overcoming discrimination during one of the most crucial times in this nation’s history, fighting for his country even while he faced bigotry at home, working as president of Bronx Community College to provide opportunities for low-income black children, providing leadership and sage advice to the black community, I’m honored to have been his friend.