Ronald H. Brown lived life of “firsts.’’ At Middlebury College in Vermont, he was the first African American asked to enter the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. In 1989, he became the first African American to lead the Democratic National Committee.
But it was as the first African American secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce that Brown made perhaps his most lasting mark. Appointed to the post in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, Brown transformed the office. Adopting Clinton’s platform of aggressive trade, Brown hopscotched the globe to help open new markets for American goods and services.
Raised in Harlem, New York, Brown graduated from Middlebury in 1962. After a stint in the Army, Brown graduated from St. John’s University in New York with a law degree in 1970. (The school established the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights in 1999.)
He also worked at the National Urban League and a prestigious Washington, D.C., law firm before ascending to the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee in 1989.
Tragically, Brown and 34 others were killed on April 3, 1996, in a plane crash in Croatia during a business-generating trip. Clinton, at the time of his death, said Brown had transformed the department into “what it was meant to be — an instrument for realizing the potential of every American,” the New York Times reported.
By Robert Warren