When Rose Butler Browne was a student, she was known for her optimism and determination. Her quote in the 1920 edition of The Grist says it all: “I hate trig, that is why I want to stick it out.” She did, and in 1921 she received a bachelor’s degree from Rhode Island State College, now the University of Rhode Island, becoming the first African-American woman to do so.
That was just the beginning for Browne, who was born in Boston in 1897, grew up in Newport, and worked as a live-in domestic while pursuing her undergraduate studies. She later received a master’s degree from Rhode Island College, and in 1939 became the first black woman to earn a doctorate in education at Harvard University.
The determination and optimism that so defined her led Browne to make her mark as a nationally respected educator, civil rights leader, author, role model, and mentor to many. She was on the faculty at Virginia State College, West Virginia State College, Bluefield State College in West Virginia, and North Carolina College.
She won national publicity when she refused to send students for teaching jobs in West Virginia because the state’s board of education was paying black teachers less than white teachers. The publicity and subsequent shortage of teachers led to a change in the policy.
Browne retired in 1963 and published her autobiography, Love My Children, in 1969. She spent her later years in Rhode Island, continuing to be active as an educator, working with both children and senior citizens. She died in 1986 at the age of 89, and was recognized in her obituary as a “pioneer in black education” by the New York Times.
Although it has been nearly 100 years since Rose Butler Browne’s graduation, her work and legacy continue today at the University of Rhode Island. The Rose Butler Browne Peer Mentoring Program for Women of Color, named in her honor, was established in 2001.
Created for women of color, the Rose Butler Browne class is open to anyone, regardless of gender or ethnicity. It explores contemporary challenges that women of color face as well as how issues from the past may continue to impact them. It also examines what leadership looks like for women of color in today’s world.