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Loretta Morris Benson Brown, 85, a champion of hope

She was a civil rights activist and businesswoman.

Lynette Brown-Sow

Loretta Morris Benson Brown, 85, of Philadelphia, who had been a friend to Malcolm X and worked to break down racial barriers throughout her life, died Monday, Nov. 20.

Born in Philadelphia to Olivia Morris Benson and Allen Benson, Ms. Brown was an activist and businesswoman whom her daughter called "a revolutionary and a trailblazer," and who was "always ready to share whatever was on her mind."  She married Benjamin Franklin Brown and gave birth to Lynette Brown-Sow. Later in life, she married a childhood friend, Warren Ferbee.

"I think what inspired her the most was the idea that she could make an impact on her community and on the world," said her daughter,  a former deputy mayor during the Rendell administration.  "You have to remember, this was the 1940s and 1950s. … It was a difficult time for people of color and for women.  But she was a self-starter who was always very willing to fight for what she believed in."

Brown-Sow noted that early in her mother's career, she served as a vice president at Philadelphia Federal Savings & Loan, which eventually became Metropolitan Savings & Loan, working her way up from teller and branch manager.  Throughout her banking career, she was always looking for avenues to advance causes that were significant to her, and she helped found the Urban Bankers Association of Philadelphia, according to her daughter.

After her banking career, Ms. Brown worked for the Philadelphia Housing Authority as a housing manager for several key sites and managed a first home ownership program.

Ms. Brown befriended Malcolm at a time when "many African Americans were afraid to go near him," recalled her daughter, who said she found in her mother's belongings nearly a dozen postcards sent by the civil rights leader as he went through  various stages of activism and was known by many names, Malik el-Shabazz and Brother Malcolm among them.

"I can remember my grandmother telling my mother that she'd better stay away from Malcolm X. … It was a decade of chaos but she wasn't following what other people thought she should do, she followed what she thought was right to give hope and to make change happen," said Brown-Sow.

Ms. Brown often hosted events in her home where Philadelphia black community leaders like Chuck Stone and W. Wilson Goode Sr. could meet Malcolm.  As she embraced her ethnic roots — often wearing African garb — she traveled to Senegal with her daughter, together taking lessons in Swahili and visiting the Door of No Return, the final exit point of slaves from Africa, which is now a museum and memorial.

Brown-Sow said her mother never allowed her day job to get in the way of her causes and became a devotee of Pennsylvania State Sen.  Hardy Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat who served from 1971 to 1982. She was one of the early leaders within the "Hardy Williams Movement," a local political organization, and helped form the Black Political Forum, which advocated for change in the city.

Ms. Brown was known for being fiercely independent, even over the last 15 years as health challenges set in while she lived at the Kearsley Rehabilitation & Nursing Center, her daughter said.

Besides her daughter, Ms. Brown is survived by stepsons Warren, Richard, and Raymond Ferbee and several nieces and nephews.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Monday, Nov. 27, at the Mount Carmel Baptist Church, 58th and Race Streets. Friends may call at the church from 9:30 to 11 a.m. Burial will be private.