Quiet couple is not shy in gift to library

Eddie and Sylvia Brown gave $1 million to support African-American works

November 03, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Eddie and Sylvia Brown couldn't be happier with how the Enoch Pratt Free Library plans to house the African-American collection named in their honor.

"It exceeded my expectations," said Eddie Brown, while looking over the new reading room last week. "This is sensational, beautiful space. Top shelf." The room is part of a new four-story annex to the central Pratt library that will open officially today.

Some of the library's most valued collections, including the personal books and papers of H.L. Mencken, will be stored in the annex, making them more accessible to the public.

Brown, who is founder and president of Brown Capital Management, and his wife contributed $1 million to support and enlarge the more than 13,000-volume African-American collection that includes notable works such as an original Benjamin Banneker Almanac and volumes relating the collective experience of slavery.

The spacious room dedicated to the collection has a 30-foot ceiling and cherry wood furniture set against royal purple and light green -- colors meant to evoke Africa, Pratt Library Director Carla D. Hayden said.

The low-key Glen Arm couple are also recent benefactors of the Maryland Institute College of Art, underwriting the new sky-colored glass Brown Center on Mount Royal Avenue. Although the two gifts raised their public profile, that wasn't their goal.

"It's not about us, but to help African-Americans in the city of Baltimore," Eddie Brown said in a voice as subdued as a librarian's. "And to give exposure to accomplishments many may not be aware of."

Their $1 million gift, the largest in the library's history since philanthropist Enoch Pratt established it in the 1880s, was announced two years ago at a gala dinner. A sudden hush fell over the gathering.

Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison broke the silence by turning to Sylvia Brown, her dinner partner, and saying, "You go, girl!"

The Browns laugh at this memory. Then they tell another story, of a lunch with Pratt trustees and the library's development director, Theresa Silanskis.

"I asked, `What would you do with a gift of $100,000?'" Eddie Brown said. "Theresa said, `We were thinking of a million.'"

Silanskis said their contribution will ensure a steady stream of annual income to support and enlarge the African-American collection, considered one of the country's best.

"Our goal now is to make it the country's premier collection," Silanskis said.

The Browns said they asked the African-American donor community to add to the gift by coming up with $200,000 to help endow the collection. That goal is 70 percent complete, Silanskis said.

Given their growing local philanthropy, it surprises some to know that neither Eddie nor Sylvia Brown is a native Baltimorean.

They met at Howard University in Washington, where he studied electrical engineering and she studied physical education and health. In 1973, they moved to Baltimore and raised two daughters, Tonya Ingersoll and Jennifer Brown.

"Thirty years, Baltimore feels like home now," said Eddie Brown, an Allentown, Pa., native.

Sylvia Brown, who grew up in a small Virginia town named King William, remembered going to the Govans branch library for her daughters' first library cards. "That was a big deal," she said.

Sylvia Brown is an avid reader of autobiographies, such as Hillary Rodham Clinton's Living History and Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom.

Eddie Brown said they plan to take their 6-year-old grandson to the newly housed collection that bears their name.

"We will personally use it," he said.

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