Obituaries

Anita Brown, 63; Pushed Internet Use In Black Community

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Write
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Anita Brown, 63, who in the late 1990s overcame her fear of technology and became a major proponent of the Internet in the black community, died Sept. 8 of cardiac arrest at Washington Hospital Center. She lived in the District.

In 1996, Mrs. Brown, once an avowed technophobe, founded Black Geeks Online to promote computer literacy and educate others about the power of information technology.

An entrepreneur with an inspirational T-shirt business, Mrs. Brown entered the cyber realm as the Web was gaining popularity and concerns about the gap between people with Internet access and those without were prevalent. She sought to bridge what came to be known as the "digital divide" by creating her virtual information clearinghouse.

Her grass-roots effort in Washington flourished with a monthly newsletter and her recurrent Heads-UP e-mail bulletins. For five years, she kept her growing network informed on new media developments, software and hardware changes, company announcements and job openings.

Early on, she pushed to connect African Americans in Washington and elsewhere to the Internet through workshops and seminars. One of her first efforts in 1997, "Taking IT to the Streets," attracted more than 200 people and featured a live feed to chat rooms on the Internet.

In 2000, the Boston Globe said Mrs. Brown was "one of those individuals that author Malcolm Gladwell describes as a 'connector.' "

"Brown has established herself as an unofficial Internet griot who sends out missives to members all over the world, from the South Bronx to South Africa," the article said. "The organization is a digital grapevine for people of color online, and Brown had made it her mission to encourage black information tech professionals to volunteer in the community."

Anita Charlotte Chaffin was born Feb. 3, 1943, a sixth-generation Washingtonian. She was raised by her maternal aunt and attended boarding school in Pennsylvania and St. Cecilia's Academy in the District, before graduating from McKinley Technical High School in 1961.

She held a number of secretarial jobs over the years, including with the National Black United Front, Pride Inc. and A.L. Nellum and Associates.

Mrs. Brown was known as "a serial entrepreneur" by family members for her many business start-ups, including a desktop publishing business. Her most popular business is It's a DC Thang T-Shirts, which she started in the late 1980s.

Her interest in expanding her T-shirt business to other cities led her to the Internet. At first she was distrustful of the Web. "I thought it was Big Brother," she once said. "We didn't have any business on it."

But after one of her media-savvy brothers changed her mind, she became hooked. "She really was obsessed with it," said her sister Janet Dyson of Upper Marlboro. "You could find her on the Internet anytime of day or night."

In 1996, she designed and managed the help desk for NetNoir on AOL, which focuses on African American culture and lifestyles. She simplified the technical jargon, added her photo and served as "SistahGeek" concierge. She later moderated a weekly spiritual forum for NetNoir.

Mrs. Brown became an advocate for women taking advantage of the Internet and participated in a number of panels and forums. She received numerous awards, including the San Francisco Top 25 Women on the Web Award. She was an adviser to the Smithsonian Institution's Committee for a Wider Audience.

From 1997 to 2003, she advised Mario Morino, founder of the Morino Institute, a nonprofit organization that explores the opportunities and risks of the Internet and the new economy to advance social change.

Among her other interests and talents, Mrs. Brown was a singer with In Process, a group that grew out of a Sweet Honey in the Rock workshop. Most recently, she was a member of the gospel choir at St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church.

She served on the boards of Kids Computer Workshop in Washington and Step Up Corp. in Woodbridge.

Her marriage to Victor Brown ended in divorce.

In addition to her sister, survivors include two children, Shane D. Brown and Vicki Brown, both of Washington; three brothers, Maurice Welsh of Oakland, Calif., Bertram Welsh of Chowchilla, Calif., and Michael Proctor of Hughesville; three other sisters, Judy Leak of Largo, Elise Hackey of Boyds and Nancy Greenan of Silver Spring; and two grandchildren.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company