Confronted with big challenges, some people hesitate and hang back. Not Deborah Washington Brown ’75.
Like a firefighter running toward a five-alarm blaze, Brown — who passed away in June at age 68 — spent her life running toward the biggest challenges she could find.
After graduating with high honors from Lowell Tech with a degree in mathematics, she went on to Harvard, where she became the first Black woman in Harvard history to earn a Ph.D. in applied math. Next came a successful four-decade career as a computer scientist at companies like Bells Labs and AT&T, where she focused on artificial intelligence and speech recognition technology. She was awarded 11 patents, the most recent in 2019.
“I once told Debbie that I never felt that I was managing her. I just found really difficult problems I thought she might like to work on and then I left her alone,” recalls Richard Rosinski, who worked with Brown at both Bell Labs and AT&T. “The technology business is filled with lots of very smart people. Debbie was the smartest person I’ve ever met, as well as the nicest.”
Brown was good with notes as well as numbers. From an early age, she was a serious classical pianist who won citywide competitions in her native Washington, D.C. As an adult, she took part in the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs, and later performed at Carnegie Hall. Her favorite composer was Rachmaninoff, whose virtuoso compositions are famously difficult to master.
“She never felt ‘That’s it. I’m done,’ ” says her daughter Laurel Brown, an economic development specialist at Google. “There was always more to learn, always more to do.”
Brown grew up at a time when the larger world didn’t believe women of color could be successful computer scientists and classical pianists. But her parents, Lola and Edwin Washington, always did. Lola, a hairdresser, and Edwin, a postal worker and taxicab driver, worked hard to provide their four children with opportunities they’d been denied — and to make sure they didn’t internalize the racism that surrounded them.
Says Laurel: “My grandparents nurtured all their children in a way that protected them and allowed them to thrive.”
Deborah’s gifts for music and math earned her a spot at a top private high school in Washington, D.C., followed by admission to the New England Conservatory of Music. Yet NEC proved less than welcoming. While Brown received good grades, she overheard a faculty member saying she could never be a serious musician “given the fact that her father drove a taxicab,” says Laurel. “So she re-evaluated her goals and decided to transfer to Lowell Tech to study math.”
The Lowell Tech of the early 1970s had its own lessons to learn about race. As Prof. Emerita Mary Blewett notes in her history of UMass Lowell, “To Enrich and to Serve,” on the campus of 3,000 students, fewer than two dozen were African American. According to Prof. June Gonsalves, who served as Lowell Tech’s affirmative action officer at the time, some professors deliberately refused to call on Black students in class.
“If Deborah Washington was not the first African American woman to major in math at Lowell Tech, she was certainly one of the first,” recalls Prof. Alexander Olsen, then a young faculty member and himself a Lowell Tech alumnus. What he describes as her “universal genius” was immediately, irrefutably clear.
“Over the five decades that I have been at the university, I have often reflected that Deborah was the one who truly educated us,” he says. “She single-handedly demolished any stereotypes or reduced expectations we had, and rewrote the attitudinal ‘manual’ for the potential of women and minorities in the sciences.”
She graduated from Lowell with glowing recommendations and an IBM fellowship that helped pay for her graduate studies at Harvard. While there, she met Ruel Brown, a mechanical engineering student at Wentworth Institute of Technology. Married in 1979, the pair had two daughters, Laurel and her sister, Latoya, and lived and worked in New Jersey and later Georgia. They celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary this spring, shortly before Deborah died of pancreatic cancer.
“My mom was an extremely modest, low-key person,” says Laurel, someone who “worried about getting too much of the shine” and never sought publicity. “I wasn’t sure if I should share her story, because she was happy to live in blissful anonymity. But then I thought, no, this is bigger than that. She was born in a different time, three years before Rosa Parks sat down on that bus. Her grandfather was a slave. Stories like hers are worth sharing.”