Civil rights activist works to instill justice values in younger generations


Yvonne Brown, 74, of Westborough, shares life lessons of civil rights with her granddaughter, Sydney Battle, 6.

By Lori Berkey, Contributing Writer

Growing up in the 1940s and ‘50s, Yvonne Brown noticed that everyone around her had brown skin, like her. The doctor, the dentist, the shoe cobbler did, too. But the owner of the meat and fresh produce store was white, and the prices of his goods were higher and of poorer quality and less variety than what was available in white neighborhoods. She paid attention to the discrepancies.

Brown saw that the kids at her all-black school were given used text books. She knew that her grandfather, who was a licensed judge, had initially been denied work in the legal field because of his race, and that he worked as a janitor in the meantime. But her sense of self-worth was not molded by these observations. Brown’s self-esteem was shaped by the conversations that took place at family mealtime.

“Family dining sessions stressed education, strong work ethics and achievement,” Brown said. “It was made abundantly clear that no one could limit our dreams or capabilities unless we let them.”

Brown became involved in civil rights at an early age as a Girl Scout. In this realm, she found herself having to prove her worthiness during overnight camping trips, and she spoke up about task discrepancies.

She attended a junior high school outside her neighborhood and was met with “curiosity, hostility and acceptance,” an experience she believes paved the way for other students. She went on to become the first and only black teacher during the 1960s in an elementary school located in an impoverished white area in Philadelphia.

As an advocate, Brown has sat on advisory boards for schools, churches, health organizations, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and others. As a meeting host for the MetroWest Alliance for Workforce Diversity, she delivered a presentation, “Facing the Forces of Mass Destruction,” which addressed “manmade” causes of civil rights violations and how to correct them.

Brown served as president of the NAACP South Middlesex Branch from 2004-2008 and then forged ahead as liaison from the NAACP New England Area Conference to help reactivate the Worcester NAACP branch. She keeps a pulse on current civil rights issues and remains active in her fight for equality.

In recent years she worked on voter empowerment, encouraging people to attend political forums, watch debates, register to vote, and be informed about the issues. She led workshops about Martin Luther King Jr. for elementary school students. She is an active member of Framingham Coming Together, a group comprised of community leaders, including police, clergy, medical workers, and others who hold forum discussions on concerns related to injustice and inequality.

Having learned from her elders, Brown is proud to be a role model for her 6-year-old granddaughter, Sydney Battle. Brown traveled with her to Virginia so she could meet an older relative and learn about family history, segregation and living in the South.

She rode with Sydney on a Chicago sleeping car and taught her about the history of the Pullman porters train workers. She strode with her across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery. They cruised abroad together to learn about the status of women and cultural differences.

The two also traveled by bus with the NAACP to Washington, D.C., to attend President Obama’s inauguration and visit . Sydney is now the youngest member of the Worcester Branch NAACP.

Brown has hopes for Sydney’s future and the resolution of civil rights concerns. She feels it is essential that Sydney believes in her own capacity to make a difference. She believes it is also important for her to remain steadfast to the cause, keep a strong spirit and realize not everyone will agree.

“As she continues to educate herself and others, attainable goals will be realized,” Brown said, “I trust that she will look people directly in the eye and gently use her hands to guide them to the victory of justice and equality.”

At 74, Brown is as focused as ever on working for positive change.

“I am committed to the cause of civil rights, and I will rise like the steam from a cup of hot tea,” she said. “There may be circles under my eyes and the load may seem heavy, but the strength and determination from within and from above will propel and lift me, for the work must be done.”