The cause was atherosclerosis, said a stepdaughter, Willetta Brown West.
Mrs. Brown — then known as Crystal Malone — was a junior on the Burlington campus of the University of Vermont in October 1945 when she was accepted as the first and only Black member of the Alpha Xi Delta sorority.
“I had grown up in a segregated world,” Mrs. Brown later told the publication Vermont Quarterly. “When I was asked to join Alpha Xi Delta, I remember being pleased — the spoken emotions and feelings after the war made me think it was possible.”
But Beverly Robinson, the national sorority president, rejected Mrs. Brown’s admission into the half-century-old organization and ordered the university’s chapter closed when Mrs. Brown refused to withdraw her membership. Her advice to the pledge: “Life is selective, and maybe it’s just as well to learn it while we are young.”
White members of Alpha Xi Delta’s campus chapter came to Mrs. Brown’s defense, and the local newspaper, the Burlington Daily News, heralded them as “heroines of peace.” But the University of Vermont president, John S. Millis, announced that the college would “take no stand” in the dispute.
National media outlets began to cover the rift between the university’s administration and its students. Patricia Pringle, president of the Alpha Xi Delta chapter, told Time magazine she was “proud” to call Mrs. Brown a sorority sister and said fellow members “have no intention of revoking the original pledge.“
Mrs. Brown’s story caught the attention of singer and civil rights advocate Paul Robeson when he traveled to St. Albans, Vt., in October 1946 for a concert performance. Robeson told the Daily News that he “immediately presumed the democratic stand of the [sorority] members would be given full support by the university and the people of the state.”
The conflict ended when the sorority members protested by burning the group’s charter. The chapter dissolved less than a year later.
Mrs. Brown graduated in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in business, then embarked on a decades-long teaching career before retiring from Uniondale High School in New York.
Crystal Ellen Malone was born in Washington on July 22, 1926, and was a 1943 graduate of Dunbar High School.
In 1964, she married Wesley A. Brown, a member of the Naval Academy’s Class of 1949. After his military retirement in 1969, at the rank of lieutenant commander, he spent many years as a facilities planner for Howard University.
Her husband died in 2012. In addition to West, of Elkins Park, Pa., survivors include two stepsons, Wesley A. Brown Jr. of Turners Falls, Mass., and Gary A. Brown of Atlantic Beach, Fla.; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. Another stepdaughter, Carol Jackson, died in 2017.