NEW YORK – “I pulled up at him in a fifteen degree climb and fired three long bursts at him from 2,000 feet at eight o’clock to him,” Roscoe C. Brown, Jr. said, recalling an air fight as a Tuskegee Airman against a German jet during World War II. “Almost immediately, the pilot bailed out from about 24,000 feet. I saw flames burst from the jet orifices of the enemy aircraft.”
That report by Brown after the encounter is part of military lore, and so now is Brown who died Saturday night, July 2, at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. He was 94.
“Two weeks ago he fell and broke his hip,” said former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, “That’s why he was in the hospital. He’s my hero and I always call him my ‘Fighter Pilot.'”
Dinkins also reflected on Brown as an educator, particularly during his tenure as president of Bronx Community College and as a professor at New York University. “The doctorate he received, unlike mine, was not honorary,” Dinkins joked. “He earned his. He was a smart rascal.”
Born March 9, 1922 in Washington, D.C., Brown was the youngest of two children. His father, Dr. Roscoe C. Brown, Sr., a member of FDR’s “Black Cabinet,” worked as a public health specialist and his mother was a teacher. After graduation from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, he received his bachelor’s degree from Springfield College in Massachusetts in 1943.
At a very early age Brown wanted to fly planes after visiting the Smithsonian museum and seeing Charles Lindbergh’s plane. He was in his 20s when he joined the Air Army Corps and began his illustrious stint as a Tuskegee Airman. There are several historic photos of 1st Lt. Brown seated in the P-51 Mustang adorned with red tails. It was equipped with six .50 caliber M2 machine guns with which he was the first of the Black pilots to shoot down a German jet.
Another photo shows him in gear atop a plane discussing strategy with 1st Lt. Marcellus G. Smith and Col. Benjamin O. Davis in Ramitelli, Italy in March 1945. That photo was taken shortly after Brown, was one of three members of the 332nd Fighter Group, credited with shooting down a Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter. Subsequently, Brown was promoted to captain and squadron commander and later received the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with Eight Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Presidential Unit Citation.
Home from the service, after flying 68 combat missions, Capt. Brown attended New York University, where he earned an M.A. in 1949 and Ph.D. two years later.
With a freshly minted master’s degree, he was employed as a social investigator with New York City Department of Welfare. He was an instructor in physical education at West Virginia College until 1948. While working on his doctorate in 1950, he was appointed director of the Institute of Afro-American Affairs and a professor of education at NYU. Brown would be in this post for the next 27 years.
“I was named president of Bronx Community College in 1977,” Brown told The Historymakers. He would be at the helm of the college until 1993. After leaving the college, he served as director of the Center for Urban Education Policy at the Graduate School and University Center of CUNY.
“I used to see him all the time at the Graduate Center, when I worked there,” said writer and activist Karen Taylor. “He was such a distinguished gentleman and always with a kind word.”
Assemblyman Keith Wright said he was stunned when he heard the news.
“I’ve known him for almost all of my life,” Wright said in an interview. “He was a walking, talking warrior hero. My father was particularly fond of him, and I should say that my father didn’t like a lot of people.
“I was on his television show several times,” Wright continued, referring to Brown’s CUNY television show, African American Legends. “It was like sitting at the feet of one of our African chiefs.”
On the show, Brown hosted hundreds of elected officials, civic leaders, activists, writers, entertainers, educators, and entrepreneurs. The show was a continuation of his work in the weekly series Black Arts, in which won the 1973 Emmy Award for Distinguished Program.
Brown was an active member of a host of organizations, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and Libraries of the Future. He was a founding member of the American College of Sports Medicine, and for many years donned shorts and sneakers as a participant in the various running events in the city.
“I think he was a member of the Pioneer Track Club and used to jog with my father,” Wright recalled. In fact, he completed nine New York City marathons.
He was the recipient of numerous plaques, certificates, citations, and awards from a long list of significant institutions. Among them was the New York City Treasure Centennial Honor from the Museum of the City of New York and the Humanitarian Award from the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
Some of the tributes and honors he received are not attached to parchment and wood, but in the words of people such as Lloyd Williams, the President and CEO of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, of which Brown was a board member. “It is ironic that Roscoe, a true American hero, joins the ancestors on the Fourth of July weekend,” Williams began. “He was as an extraordinary civil rights activist, pilot, and educator. But more than anything he was an extraordinary human being, and a great leader, especially as president of One Hundred Black Men.”
Along with his wife, Bernadette, Brown is survived by his four children, Doris “Bunnie Bodine, Diane McDougall, Dennis Brown and Donald Brown — six grandchildren, and four great grandchildren.
As of press time, the family had not announced funeral services or memorial arrangements.