Although little is known of her formative childhood years, it is certain that Gertrude Brown’s Charlotte, North Carolina education was impacting on her values and career. From 1906 to 1911, then known as Willie G. Brown, she was enrolled at Scotia Seminary in Concord, NC. This was a school founded by the Presbyterian Church to educate newly freed African American girls; Mary McLeod (Bethune) was a former graduate.
The curriculum there was designed for Black women in the south to learn and to serve their people by educating them. After graduation in 1911, Brown became a teacher in the Charlotte public school system where she spent six years. She entered social work as a friendly visitor for the Associated Charities for two summers then worked at the Traveler’s Aid desk for another year, all in her hometown. Brown founded the first hospital for African Americans in Charlotte and that city’s Sabbath School Association. While working in these capacities, she continued her education.
Brown took courses at the Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro in 1913, at Cheyney Institute for Teachers in Pennsylvania in 1915, and at Hampton Institute in 1918. In 1919, she moved to Dayton, Ohio. There she worked at the Linden Community Center, first as Director of Girls and Women’s work for three years, then as executive secretary for two more years until 1924. She was also executive secretary of Federation of Social Services for Negro Women in Dayton. Continuing her education, Brown studied at the Playground and Community Center in Atlanta, GA., in 1919, and in Chicago in 1920. In 1923, she received a B.S. from Columbia University.
In the fall of 1924, W. Gertrude Brown moved to Minneapolis to head the Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House. While directing the programs there, she took summer courses at Oxford University and traveled in circles of those who were interested in combating racism in America. The Paris conference of settlements was held in June of 1926 and attended by 250 delegates from twenty countries. Brown was one of about 30 American representatives who came away excited about the show of peace and cooperation from delegates from around the world. Unfortunately, back in the United States, even among her white colleagues, she would remain a second-class citizen and viewed as having questionable ideas.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, small community centers known as “settlement houses” were found in urban areas all across America. Social workers and volunteers would move into blighted neighborhoods to “Americanize” the flood of immigrants arriving in large numbers.
Connection to the settlement house movement:
In 1911, a National Federation was formed with the leadership of Jane Addams, and settlement houses gained new strength and political clout. However, African-American run social organizations were generally left out of the Federation.
There were exceptions. The Phyllis Wheatley Settlement House in Minneapolis was called “the greatest settlement house in the U.S. for Negroes” and it’s first director, W. Gertrude Brown, has touched the lives of generations of African-Americans. Many civil and social leaders called the Wheatley House their second home, and distinguished list of guests included the likes of Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Marian Anderson andf W.E.B. DuBois.
The first decades of the Phyllis Wheatley House, and the visionary work of W. Gertrude Brown, are detailed in “The Heart of Bassett Place: W. Gertrude Brown and the Wheatley House” a documentary by Mick Caouette available on DVD.