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Army veteran, civic leader Rembert H. Brown dies at 97

Rembert Brown, elder for 42 years at Memorial

Rembert Brown, elder for 42 years at Memorial Presbyterian Church in Roosevelt, retires and celebrates his 90th birthday on Nov. 19, 2011, at the church.  Credit: Newsday file/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Rembert H. Brown, a Roosevelt civic leader who worked to integrate the Army, founded a community advocacy group and improved his neighborhood through leadership at Memorial Presbyterian Church of Roosevelt, died this month. He was 97.

He passed away in hospice care on Oct. 13, a week shy of his 98th birthday, from complications of dementia, said his son, Ray Brown of Freeport. 

The son of sharecroppers, Brown had a career in the Army before settling in Roosevelt.

"It is my firm belief that nothing is impossible if you work at it hard enough, long enough and are properly motivated," Brown told Newsday in 2000 when he was named a "Long Islander of the Century."

He worked at Newsday for 19 years and retired in 1987 as vice president of human resources.

He co-founded the Roosevelt Community Council in 1967 to give the community a voice in local government, he told Newsday in a 2008 interview. At Memorial Presbyterian Church of Roosevelt, where he served as an elder before becoming president and administrator, he raised money for scholarships, a new church sanctuary, a health center and economic development initiatives.

"What I remember most was the dedication to helping people," said the Rev. Reginald Tuggle, pastor emeritus at Memorial Presbyterian, who also worked with him at Newsday.

"He was always enthusiastic. And what I liked about him, he was able to convince others to be supportive, even if they were lackluster" at the beginning, Tuggle said. "He was doggedly determined to not let 'no' be the answer."

Ray Brown, 69, said his father was a leader. "He was a very strong-willed person, always determined to achieve his goals," he said. "He was a person who achieved most of his goals in his life."

Born in Smoaks, South Carolina, the seventh of 10 children, at age 11 Rembert Brown dropped out of school to pick crops because his father died. He later rejoined school and set out for Benedict College, in Columbia, South Carolina, with $46 in his pocket, according to a 2002 Newsday profile of Brown marking the 30th anniversary of a church scholarship program Brown organized.

He joined the Army during World War II, then re-enlisted in 1946 .

During his service, he worked to end segregation in the Army, at a time when black officers had to eat at separate mess halls than other officers.

"Well, that didn't sit well with me. So every effort that I could muster was aimed at changing that situation," he said in 2008.

In 1946, Brown successfully advocated that his post combine four separate personnel offices — three black and one white — into one office. Other military outfits, including General Douglas MacArthur's headquarters, sent representatives to find out how integration was working.

"That was the first positive reaction to my efforts to integrate the Army. I can't forget the date. It was the sixth day of November 1946," he said

It was two years before President Harry Truman issued an order ending segregation of the armed forces.

"Everyone had the mistaken belief that whites and blacks cannot work together with blacks being in a supervisory capacity," Brown recalled.  "They said, 'Well, white soldiers are not going to take orders from blacks.' Well, I said, 'Give us a chance and I can prove you wrong,' " he said. 

He explained his philosophy for bringing about change: "I was never a rabble-rouser, never a marcher marching up and down the street, because I always felt you do not accomplish anything walking down the street and yelling and carrying on as many of the civil rights persons were doing. I felt you do the right thing, do it properly, somebody will notice."

He was stationed at Fort Totten, Queens, when he retired in 1963 as a chief warrant officer 4. He and his wife, Dorothy, settled in Roosevelt with their son. They joined Memorial Presbyterian Church of Roosevelt in 1964.

Brown's wife, Dorothy, died in 2016. He is survived by his son Ray Brown, 69, and his grandson, Shawn Brown, 44, of Roosevelt, and nieces and nephews.

A viewing will be held Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. at Memorial Presbyterian Church of Roosevelt, at 189 Babylon Turnpike. A service will start at 11 a.m.

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