Couple's $1 million gift is city library's largest

Part of donation for historic black writings Browns donate $1 million to Pratt

part for African-American works

November 09, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

Eddie and Sylvia Brown have rewritten the book on charitable giving to the Enoch Pratt Free Library, with a record $1 million gift that was announced last night.

The Glen Arm couple's donation - the largest since Enoch Pratt's original $833,333 bequest in 1882 - will enable the library to expand its collection of African-American works, which includes such gems as Benjamin Banneker's 1796 Almanac.

A portion of the money will be used to create an endowment for the collection, though details have not been set.

The renamed Eddie and Sylvia Brown African American Collection will be housed in spacious quarters in a new Central Library annex downtown that is expected to open in 2004, as part of a $46 million expansion and renovation paid largely with state funds.

The donation gives the financially strapped library system good news after it has closed five of its 26 branches this year because of money woes. The Browns' gift will not reopen those branches, officials say, but provides a psychological lift.

"It's a wonderful time for us, and we hope more people invest in the library," said library director Carla Hayden after the gift was announced at a meeting of the Enoch Pratt Society.

When the amount was announced, the 215 people attending the dinner gasped, then rose and gave a standing ovation to the Browns.

"You will never know the names of all the children whom your gift will help, but they will know your name," said Cecil E. Flamer, immediate past chairman of the Pratt's board, after announcing the donation.

Anne West, a member of the library's board, said it was a happy accident of timing that the donation to endow the African-American collection was made the same evening that the Pratt Society was honoring Toni Morrison, one of the world's leading African-American writers.

"It's a total coincidence," she said. "What the Browns are doing for this city is really wonderful."

The gift is the Browns' first to the library - "We paid fines" on overdue books, joked Sylvia Brown - but hardly their first significant charitable contribution in Baltimore.

In March, the couple announced a $6 million grant to the Maryland Institute College of Art that will pay about half the construction cost of the school's first new academic building in a century.

The couple's decision to give to the Pratt stemmed from a desire to have a positive impact on the city's black community.

"We're interested in enriching and improving the lives of African Americans in the city of Baltimore, especially African-American youth," said Eddie Brown, owner of Brown Capital Management, one of the oldest African-American owned financial firms in the country. "We want to broaden their horizons and give them opportunities to grow and develop."

In committing $1 million, the Browns have also challenged the city's African-American community to raise an additional $200,000. About 55 percent of that amount has been pledged already, according to Flamer, who approached the Browns 18 months ago about making a donation.

The library will not wait until the new annex opens to begin spending some of the $1 million on new books and other materials covering all aspects of African-American history and culture.

The library now has 13,000 volumes - and that could quadruple thanks to the Browns, said Vivian Fisher, manager of the African American Special Collections Department.

"If the information is out there, we want to purchase it and have it in the collection," Fisher said.

The collection has been the recipient of other generosity in recent years. The estate of Juanita Burns, whose husband, Charles T. Brown, owned the Super Pride grocery chain, gave $150,000.

But the Browns' gift is bigger than any individual donation the library has received, Pratt officials said.

"It was a big surprise to us," said Sylvia Brown. "We had no idea."

Eddie Brown, whose offices are on North Calvert Street, is known around the country as a regular panelist on Wall Street Week With Louis Rukeyser.

Staff writer Mary Carole McCauley contributed to this article.

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