Practicers of quiet philanthropy

Millionaire Maryland couple don't judge themselves by how much wealth they've accrued but by how many people they've been able to help


Eddie and Sylvia Brown have hung the provocative artwork in a can't-miss-it spot in their Glen Arm home, giving them ample opportunity to ponder its message.

The piece, by African-American artist Betye Saar, features three washboards hung vertically, each with a poignant image of old, tired washerwomen primed to tackle the day's laundry. The work's title is imprinted in bold lettering: Lest We Forget, Upon Whose Shoulders, We Now Stand.

"Every day when we head to our garage," said Eddie Brown, "it's there."

At first glance there's very little about the couple's life that implies washboard. He founded an asset management firm in 1983, after 10 years with T. Rowe Price, and today Brown Capital Management manages more than $2 billion in assets.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on April 16 about philanthropists Eddie and Sylvia Brown incorrectly identified the school attended by five students whose tuition is paid for by the couple. It is the Institute of Notre Dame in East Baltimore.
The Sun regrets the errors.

Together, the Browns are among the country's leading African-American philanthropists. Last year, Black Enterprise magazine rated their foundation eighth among African-American foundations and charities based on 2003 giving - after the likes of Oprah Winfrey (No. 1) and Sean "Diddy" Combs (6), and ahead of Ben and Candy Carson of Baltimore (11) and Bill and Camille Cosby (15). They're in the elite group of the city's top givers, donating more than $16 million since 1994.

Their giving reflects their belief in the city's potential, that, like the washboard painting, you can turn a throwaway object into a work of art. In that way, they have been more influential than some politicians, urban planners and developers in shaping Baltimore's future, even as the city continues to crumble under the weight of problems that it seems no amount of money can readily remedy.

Still the Browns keep giving, even as they make concerted efforts to keep from calling attention to their philanthropy, often coming to the rescue when others have given up, frequenting blighted areas most people usually drive around.

Despite their riches, they're humble, passionate, down-to-earth. They come from backgrounds not far removed from many of the city's neediest, yet have never lost sight of the core values and sacrifices many made on their behalf.

That's why the washboard piece stands out in their home, even in the company of six Romare Bearden paintings and sculptures that Elizabeth Catlett and Sonya Clark crafted just for them.

They know they're among the "we" Saar is talking about. They've made the effort not to forget.

"We didn't get here by ourselves," Sylvia Brown says. "It's like Maya Angelou says, `I'm on the shoulders of all the people before me.' We're on the shoulders of people who have helped us out."

Gifts in the millions

The Browns scoff at the notion that they're part of the glue that has kept this financially strapped metropolis together, but in many ways they are. Consider what their generosity has built:

A center for digital arts and design at the Maryland Institute College of Art, created when the Browns donated the largest gift in the history of the school, $6 million.

The Turning the Corner Achievement Program that helps Baltimore middle-school pupils excel in high school and beyond, courtesy of the largest gift ever to the Baltimore school system ($5 million) to launch it.

At the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Pratt Library, increased support for African-American artists, thanks to large donations.

Of their recent gifts, the Bromo Seltzer Tower project might best illustrate the role the couple has come to play in the city.

Renovating the vacant 15-story tower has been viewed as key to the revitalization of the west side of Baltimore's downtown. But the city struggled to get the project off the ground, and the tower has been vacant since the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture abandoned it in 2002.

Construction magnate Willard Hackerman backed away from plans to invest in the project, delaying the tower's renovation until the Browns read about his withdrawal. They stepped in, and their donation will help transform the tower into 15 to 20 artists' studios.

The Browns have a way of coming to the rescue at just the right time.

And yet, they can be shy about the attention that such good works draw, such as when they donated $1 million to the Pratt Library in 2001 - the most since Enoch Pratt gave $833,333 to found it.

"At first, they said they wanted to remain anonymous," said Pratt Executive Director Carla Hayden. "They're not interested in recognition but are really committed to helping others."

They focus most of their giving on education and the arts, believing that education is vital to elevating youngsters from impoverished surroundings and that the arts make them more well-rounded.

Their belief that the troubled city schools can be turned around stands in sharp contrast to comments made by Winfrey during a recent visit to town. In a WBAL interview, she said she considered aiding the school system but opted not to, believing her philanthropy wouldn't make a difference.

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