Black History in Rye and Westchester: Robert Sumner Brown and the Brown Family of Rye

By Suzanne Clary

Fifty-one years ago, this month, Robert Sumner Brown, a native of Rye made history. In 1968, a year remembered for volatile unrest including division over the war in Vietnam and racial tensions over housing discrimination, Bob Brown became the first African American appointed to the Local Draft Board of White Plains. Simultaneously, he assumed the Chairmanship of Rye’s Human Rights Commission. Bob was an ideal choice for each of these roles having demonstrated his skills as a leader, a consensus builder and a mentor. His civic accomplishments included a decade of service as President of the Port Chester/Rye Branch of the NAACP. The fact that Rye’s American Legion Post 128 honored him with the Americanism Award that same year was hardly a surprise to those in the village who knew him.

Bob’s origins were modest. His great grandfather Joseph was a farmer who moved from the Hangroot section of Greenwich, Connecticut in the early 1800s to Harrison and then Port Chester. The Brown family put down roots in Rye when Bob’s grandfather Joseph, Jr., became the Steward at a small golf club called Apawamis and Bob’s great uncle Samuel secured work as a coachman at the Whitby Estate on Boston Post Road. Bob’s father George would become a much respected and beloved letter carrier for the Rye Post Office and Bob followed in his footsteps – in fact his route for over a quarter of a century was right here in Greenhaven.

With 5 of his own children in public school, no one understood better the power of education and need to promote a value system within the curriculum that could then have impact on and off campus. Bob’s achievements on the Human Rights Commission included sponsoring “a course in black culture offered both in the Rye High School and at the Carver Center in Port Chester,” where he was a founding board member. In addition to holding formal meetings, Bob and other members of the Commission “made their homes available for social occasions of fun, fellowship, and communication, particularly” creating safe places for dialogue about the issues they faced as black members of the community.

Always his partner when it came to tackling threats to civil liberties, Bob’s wife Lester was also engaged in Rye organizations that defended equal rights for African Americans and also for women. In 1963, she met obstacles head-on chairing “a brotherhood seminar of civic leaders of Westchester” which boldly asked the question, “Is Rye really facing the problem of discrimination?”

Five decades later, all Americans are asking this question of themselves and their hometowns. In fact, Rye’s Human Rights Commission which had been dormant for many years was recently reconstituted in 2017.

So today, we dedicate this performance of “The Kept Private” to the memory of Robert Sumner Brown and his family. May we continue to have safe havens like the ones that they helped create and opportunities to communicate with each other about our shared challenges and solutions.