Cynthia Brown, whose family connection to 1898 tragedy led to life of service, dies at 68

Cynthia Brown, executive director of New Hanover County Community Action/Head Start, in 2012.
Cynthia Brown, executive director of New Hanover County Community Action/Head Start, in 2012.

Cynthia Jevette Brown, a descendant of survivors of Wilmington's 1898 coup and massacre who dedicated her life to making the history of the event better known and to bettering the lives of people in Wilmington's Black community, died Nov. 23 at Lower Cape Fear Life Care in Wilmington. She was 68.

According to an obituary published by Wilmington's Adkins-Drain Funeral Service, a funeral will be held 11 a.m. Thursday, Nov. 30, at St. Stephen AME Church. Burial will follow in Pine Forest Cemetery.

Brown was the director of human resources for the city of Wilmington in the mid-1990s and later served as director of the nonprofit New Hanover County Community Action Inc., running the county's Head Start program for at-risk youngsters.

She was also a prominent advocate of exploring Wilmington's history, especially its most traumatic moments, as a way of beginning to heal from its effects. For Brown, the history of 1898 played a central, even defining role in her life.

In 2006, Brown told the StarNews the story of how in 1966 her great-grandmother, Athalia Howe, spoke from her deathbed to tell Brown and other family members about witnessing a mob of white men drag a Black man from his porch and shoot him to death on Nov. 10, 1898. Howe was 12 at the time, and her family lived at Fifth and Harnett streets in Wilmington, near the epicenter of 1898 violence.

Wilmington history: Family looks back at violence

Whites killed dozens of Blacks during the events of 1898, drove others out of town and forced elected officeholders who supported a biracial governing coalition to resign.

Hearing the story as a 12-year-old in 1966, Brown told the StarNews in 2006, "It stayed with me."

Brown was born in Wilmington in 1955. When she was in high school in the early 1970s, she told the paper in 2006, she went to the New Hanover County Library looking for more information about 1898. Brown said she was told the documents she wanted were locked away, and was asked why she needed the information.

"I really left for college determined that I would find out one day," she said.

Brown went to college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, then worked in human resources in the Research Triangle. She moved to Chicago and got a masters degree from Loyola University, then worked for the University of Illinois and Ameritech.

She moved back to Wilmington in 1993, working for the city of Wilmington then joining New Hanover County Community Action in 1998. She was active in her church, St. Stephen AME, which was also the church of her great-grandmother Athalia, and became the church's historian.

Brown was also a descendant of famed Wilmington educator Mary Washington Howe.

In 2020, Brown's story was featured in a lengthy Washington Post article about her family's connection to 1898.

"I’ve seen so many people come (to Wilmington) and think it’s a fun-in-the-sun place, and they operate as though the playing field is level for everyone," Brown told The Post. "They drive by underprivileged neighborhoods, and it’s like, 'Ho-hum.' … Not knowing the history can be destructive to a community. When people have no sense of the ground they are standing on, they just keep perpetuating what has already occurred."

In April, Wilmington's Mouths of Babes theater company staged "Wilmington Reconstructed," an original play reckoning with 1898 and its ongoing impacts.

'Wilmington Reconstructed': Documentary play about Wilmington's 1898 coup and massacre takes provocative stand

Wilmington actress Amber Briana Moore portrayed Brown in the play, using dialogue taken from an interview with Brown that stretched to more than two hours.

"It kind of became a conversation," Moore said of the interview, adding that even though she'd never met Brown before, "She felt like a family member almost."

Moore said that "one reason it's taken such a long time for the community to be able to acknowledge 1898 and to be able to talk about is because it's so uncomfortable and so sad."

It's because of people like Brown, Moore said, who wouldn't let the history die, that the events of 1898 are more widely known, and its impacts better understood.

Knowing the history, Moore said, also allowed Brown to better help people in the present day.

"It goes hand in hand," Moore said. "Her having that background (led to) understanding and empathy so she could carry on and educate and push for equity in her community."

Brown is survived by her husband, Phillip Jordan Brown; sons David Theus McDonald of Lexington, Kentucky, and Phillip Edward Brown of Wilmington; daughter Jennifer Tillman of Salisbury; stepmother Vera Brown of Bethesda, Maryland; brother Michael Brown of Charlotte; and five grandchildren.

This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Cynthia Jevette Brown obituary, Wilmington woman had 1898 connection