Considered the first African American judge in Pittsburgh, Homer Sylvester Brown was an esteemed civil and political rights activist. A graduate of Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia, Brown received his law degree in 1923 from the University of Pittsburgh. On October 23, 1923, he became a member of the Allegheny County Bar Association.
Brown passionately served the Pittsburgh community for over 50 years. His many accomplishments included chairing the Friendly Service Committee, which successfully reduced crime in the Hill District during the Great Depression; election to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1934; investigation of the Pittsburgh’s Board of Education’s refusal to hire black teachers, an investigation that ultimately paved the way for an overhaul of the Board’s hiring practices; passage of several bills that resulted in the “Pittsburgh Package” and created the Housing Authority; and authoring a bill in 1945 that would prohibit discrimination in employment in Pennsylvania – a bill that would earn him the famous title, “Father of the State Fair Employment Practices Act.”
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 served for 24 years. In 1943, he became the first African American appointed to the Pittsburgh Board of Education. Further, Brown 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 until 1975, when poor health required his retirement.
As 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.
Brown’s tireless efforts to improve the lives of others in the Pittsburgh community included not only his work in the legal and political arenas, but through other organizations, as well. Brown’s various accomplishments and memberships included 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 as a member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.