Margarett Root Brown, philanthropist and art patron and collector, was born in Taylor, Texas, on July 21, 1895. She was the daughter of James Leper Root and South Carolina (Easley) Root. She had two older siblings, brother Daniel and sister Florra, and a younger sister, Elizabeth. The Root family lived in Baxter County, Arkansas, in 1900 but had moved to Georgetown, Texas, by the time of the 1910 census, when James Root was listed as a farmer. The family later lived on a farm between Taylor and Georgetown. From an early age, Margarett suffered from lung problems, probably emphysema, which had a significant impact upon her ability to participate fully in activities throughout her life. In 1912 she matriculated at Southwestern University, where she was especially interested in art and literature, and joined Alpha Delta Pi sorority. She was also listed as a member of the school’s art department that aided in the illustrations of the yearbook The Sou’Wester. Her activities and trips were mentioned often in the school’s newspaper and yearbook during her matriculation, and when she graduated in 1915 with her A.B. degree, The Sou’Wester noted that Margarett was “one of our society belles.”
In 1917, while teaching school in Belton, Texas, she met Herman Brown at a dance in Georgetown. Brown was a native of Belton and had attended the University of Texas before starting his own road paving business. His younger brother, King, was one of Margarett’s students.
Margarett Root and Herman Brown eloped a few months later and were married on September 9, 1917, by a justice of the peace in Travis County. Margarett would not accept a wedding ring because she thought of it as a sign of bondage. The couple spent their honeymoon in one of Herman’s road construction tents. In 1918 the couple lived in Taylor, Texas, with Margarett’s father while Hermann’s road crew was working in Temple.
In 1919, when his partnership with two backers fell through, Herman Brown turned to his brother-in-law Dan Root to provide the backing for Herman to borrow $20,000 to start his own road building and paving company. Dan owned a 700-acre cotton farm near Granger, Texas. Herman named the new business Brown & Root, but Dan was a silent partner and never took any significant role in the business. Herman’s brother, George Rufus Brown, joined the company in 1922, and Margarett was one of the partners.
When Herman made Georgetown the center of his operations, Margarett Root Brown was active socially. Her name often appeared in local newspapers, which described her involvement with several clubs and organizations, including the statewide Bronte Club and a local women’s literary club. She also traveled to Europe during this period.
In 1926 Herman moved the Brown & Root headquarters to Austin, and in 1929 the couple moved into a newly-built home at 4 Niles Road in the Enfield section of the city, near the Capitol and Governor’s Mansion. Herman and George Brown and their wives met Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Claudia (Lady Bird), shortly after Johnson was elected to the U. S. Congress in 1937. Lady Bird Johnson enjoyed the company of Margarett and her sister-in-law Alice Pratt Brown, all having been raised in small Texas Towns. Lady Bird was especially impressed by Margarett’s breadth of knowledge and described her as a “very stimulating, intellectual, independent woman.” While her illness limited physical activity, Margarett was extremely well-read in literature, philosophy, the arts, and well-versed on the issues of the day about which she often had strong opinions.
The Browns were members of Austin’s society. In addition to hosting important gatherings, Margarett and Herman hosted¬ a supper in Austin for Nobel Laureate, Thomas Mann, when he visited Austin during a speaking tour in October 1941. Margarett was active in the Austin Symphony Society and a member of the Texas Fine Arts Association. Her involvement even included sponsoring prizes for artists.
In 1943 Margarett and Herman adopted seven-year-old Louisa Stude, the child of a long-time Houston family. Louisa, whose mother was seriously ill, had been living with a foster family. Soon after, the Brown’s adopted Louisa’s brother, Micajah (Mike), who had been living in an orphanage in Austin. According to Louisa, Margarett made certain the children had a firm grounding in other cultures, languages, and the fine arts.
By 1947 the Browns had moved to Houston to a home next to George and Alice Brown’s residence in the River Oaks neighborhood. Because of Margarett’s illness, she was not as active socially, although she was active in the Woman’s Committee of the Houston Symphony Society. According to Louisa, “Aunt Maggie” made up for her physical restrictions by being an avid reader. She also served on the boards of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Houston Foundation for Ballet. She was a member of St. Paul’s Methodist Church.
Margarett was actively involved in her alma mater, Southwestern University, and Herman became a member of its board of trustees. Their major contributions to the campus included gifts of fine art and rare books, in addition to financial support. Margarett’s sister, Florra, was married to Claude C. Cody, Jr., the son of revered former faculty member and dean Claude C. Cody, Sr. Cody Jr. became chair of Southwestern University’s board of trustees, and in 1948 Herman was named to that body. The Brown Foundation, established in 1951 by Herman and Margarett Brown and George and Alice Brown, provided Southwestern’s first endowed professorship and marked the beginning of a long record of foundation support for the university. Margarett was especially active in funding international students at Southwestern, but with two stipulations: “the student had to speak adequate English in order to participate effectively in classes and had to return to his or her own country on graduation.”
Margarett Root Brown died of pulmonary insufficiency at Methodist Hospital in Houston on January 25, 1963, just two months after Herman’s death. An editorial in the Houston Post after her death lauded Margarett for her “stout courage” and “quiet helpfulness.” She was buried in Glenwood Cemetery in Houston. Following her death, the Brown Foundation funded the Margarett Root Brown College, the second dormitory for women at Rice University. The foundation continued to make large gifts to Southwestern University for buildings and professorships named for members of the Brown family.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.
Austin American-Statesman, January 27, 1929; January 28, 1963. Austin Statesman, September 18, 1947. Builders: Herman and George R. Brown Book Research Files, Woodson Research Center, Rice University, Houston. William B. Jones, To Survive and Excel: The Story or Southwestern University, 1840–2000 (Georgetown, Texas: Southwestern University, 2006). Joseph A. Pratt and Christopher J. Castaneda, Builders: Herman and George R. Brown (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999). Transcript, Claudia "Lady Bird" Johnson Oral History Interview XI, 1/27-28/79, by Michael L. Gillette, Electronic Copy, LBJ Library, online at (http://www.lbjlibrary.net/assets/documents/archives/oral_histories/johnson_c/CTJ%2011.pdf), accessed February 9, 2019.
Patrons, Collectors, and Philanthropists
Activism and Social Reform
Texas in the 1920s
Texas Post World War II
Upper Gulf Coast
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