Obituary: Sydney Taylor Brown / Psychiatric social worker from Schenley Heights
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
By Steve Levin, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sydney Taylor Brown, the daughter of a world champion cyclist who went on to make a name for herself during three decades of social work with local veterans, died Friday at Heritage Shadyside Nursing Home. She was 101.
Mrs. Brown's father was Marshall W. "Major" Taylor, the first African-American athlete to become an international sports superstar. Predating black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson by a decade and baseball's incomparable Jackie Robinson by 50 years, Taylor held seven world cycling records in 1898, won the world 1-mile bicycling championship in 1899 and was the American sprint champion in 1900.
The world's fastest bicyclist for nearly 12 years -- one of his nicknames was the "Colored Cyclone" -- Taylor took his young daughter Sydney with him on trips throughout Asia, Europe and the United States. In fact, she was named for Sydney, Australia, where she was born on May 11, 1904.
By then Taylor had settled his family in Worcester, Mass., where the hilly terrain provided better training and the racial prejudice was muted compared with his hometown of Indianapolis.
Being raised as the only child of one of the country's wealthiest black families had its advantages for Mrs. Brown. She kept a pet kangaroo in her back yard, traveled extensively, was pampered by maids and servants, and began her college education at Boston's exclusive Tufts University.
She eventually graduated from West Virginia Collegiate Institute, now West Virginia State University, in 1925 with a degree in physical education. She and her husband, the late Dallas Coverdale Brown, both taught at the Institute, W.Va., school.
But Mrs. Brown, strong-willed and independent, chafed at life in small-town West Virginia. According to her son, retired Brig. Gen. Dallas Coverdale Brown Jr., she wanted to attend graduate school at the University of Chicago. Her husband said he'd divorce her if she left. She did and he did, and her son only saw his mother a handful of times after that until a rapprochement in the 1980s.
Mrs. Brown did enroll at the University of Chicago's school of social service administration in the summer of 1934, but left after the next spring. She enrolled for a summer quarter in 1954 but left without earning her degree.
By 1939, she had settled in Pittsburgh and worked as a social worker for several years. Three years later, though, she joined the American Red Cross and became field director for a service club for African Americans in London. Since the American military was segregated during the war, Mrs. Brown's club provided one of the few sites where black soldiers could gather socially.
A few weeks after D-Day, she also landed at Normandy. She commandeered a jeep and arrived in Paris after it was recaptured by the Allies. She started a club for black servicemen within a few weeks. Before the war ended, she had also established a club in Rheims.
After the war, she returned to Pittsburgh and worked for the Veterans Administration as a psychiatric social worker until retiring during the 1970s.
She was active in the YWCA, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the United Way and the Urban League. Her volunteer work with the Urban League spanned six decades, from speaking at a 1938 conference about "Personal Hygiene on the Job" to the 1980s, when she attended public meetings.
Mrs. Brown lived most of her Pittsburgh life alone in a house on Milwaukee Street in Schenley Heights. She walked daily, ate little, was an excellent swimmer and very frugal.
She missed few chances to talk about her father's racing career, including appearing on an NBC television special during the 1996 Olympics and providing background material for a book about her father. He died in 1932 at age 53 in the charity ward of Cook County Hospital in Chicago.
Mrs. Brown had lived at the nursing home for three years. True to her independent nature, she had saved enough money to pay the cost of her care without anyone's help.
In addition to her son, of Bluffton, S.C., she is survived by five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held tomorrow at the First Unitarian Church, 605 Morewood St., Shadyside. She was cremated.
(Steve Levin can be reached at 412-263-1919.)