In later years, Harry Browne attributed his lifetime of social activism to the unbelievable bigotry of one of his Michigan State professors. Noting that the young man was studying electrical engineering, the professor sneered, “Hey Browne, what are you going to do—open a shoeshine stand and operate it electrically?”
Harry Browne was born on January 12, 1908 in the little town of London, West Virginia. Just a year later, the family moved to Saginaw, hoping for a better life than the grinding poverty West Virginia offered an African American family.
At a time when many African Americans dropped out of school after the 9th grade, Browne knew the value of education. He attended Saginaw High where he was well-liked and tried out for both the football and basketball teams. “I was too small to make either first team,“ he recalled, “I played for Saginaw High on the second team of both sports.”
After graduation, he enrolled at Michigan State and had various jobs there, trying to work his way through college. After three years, the Great Depression loomed: the jobs ran out and so did the money.
Browne came back to Saginaw and found a job at the Chevrolet Grey Iron Foundry. It was a big step down from the engineering career that he had dreamed of but he made the best of it. He was among the early leaders of the UAW in Saginaw and worked as an organizer when conservatives looked on a union representative as a rabble rouser and even a communist.
He became the first black president of UAW Local 668 and the first black president of the Saginaw Chapter of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (forerunner of the Saginaw Labor Council).
In 1940-41, he attended Wayne State University’s College of Mortuary Science and in 1941, he founded Browne’s Mortuary, which eventually occupied an impressive, white-columned building at 441 N. Jefferson. During the first years of his career as a funeral director, he kept his job at the Gray Iron Foundry and continued his work in the union local for 40 years.
This led to a lifetime of community service. He conducted minority voter registration drives and was the first black member of the Saginaw County Board of Supervisors (later the Board of Commissioners) and served on that board for 23 years.
In 1962, the city recreation center at 4th and Kirk was officially named the Harry W. Browne Recreation Center in recognition of his civic contributions and his leadership in the development of the facility. The center had been converted from a fire station, a plan suggested by a crime study on which Browne had worked.
He was active in the United Way efforts for many years and was the first black in the nation to head up an annual United Way fund drive. In 1983, the organization awarded him its highest volunteer honor.
He served on the Tri City Airport Commission for fifteen years and the municipal airport on Janes road was named the Harry W. Browne Airport in his honor in 1973. Frontiers International Club (an organization he helped to found) named their community service award in his honor.
In a full-page interview in 1974, Saginaw News staff writer Ed Miller captured his personality: “His grin is always near the surface. And so is a quip nimble enough to match any tossed his way. He has an inquiring mind noteworthy for its depth and ability to calculate details.” In 1989, Browne told another interviewer, “Piling up money means nothing to me. That’s why I’ll never have anything.”
In nominating Browne to the Hall of Fame, a friend wrote, “Harry was a leader in the truest sense of leadership, not posturing about his blackness but trying to instill values in terms of leadership that translated into success. He was loyal almost to a fault, exhibiting a quiet generosity in many ways. He was a quiet but very influential leader and role model, leading by example.”
He was married to Minrose Fields, a widow with three sons: Harry, Birt and Kenneth, that he helped to raise and they had a daughter, Karen, together. After her death, he married Ora Jordan.
Harry Browne died on September 4, 1990.
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