Cynthia Stokes Brown: Civil rights and Big History author, world traveler

Cynthia Stokes Brown — March 20, 1938 – Oct. 15, 2017

Cynthia Stokes Brown died at home on Oct. 15, 2017, of pancreatic cancer, at the age of 79, surrounded by her loving family. Cynthia approached the last weeks of her life with a fearless and joyful outlook and accepted death as part of the cycle of life.

Cynthia was born in 1938 to Louise Bast Stokes and Stanley Thomas Stokes and grew up with brother Jim and sisters Susan and Fran in Madisonville, in the farming and coal region of western Kentucky. The deeply segregated Southern culture made a lasting imprint on her, influencing her pursuit and writing of social justice throughout her life. Cynthia majored in history at Duke University because, as she said, “it seemed to include everything.”

After graduating in 1960, she and her future husband, James R. Brown, moved to Baltimore, MD, where she earned a master’s degree in teaching at Johns Hopkins University. After being awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, Cynthia completed her doctoral studies in 1964 in the history of education, while teaching high school world history and developing a passion for helping others understand history.

Cynthia and Jim married in 1961 and welcomed their first son, Erik Elam Brown, three years later. They served in the Peace Corps in Brazil from 1965-67 and welcomed their second son, Ivor Stanley Brown, in Fortaleza in 1966. They moved in 1969 to Berkeley, CA, where Jim became director of student health at UC Berkeley. Cynthia and Jim divorced in 1980.

After raising her sons, Cynthia returned to professional life in 1982, directing the secondary teaching credential program at Dominican University of California. She particularly enjoyed the supervision of classroom practice by her student teachers, where she gave honest feedback and encouraged them to develop skills as discussion leaders.

During her years at Dominican, Cynthia wrote four books and numerous articles addressing civil rights, racism, and writing oral history, including Like It Was: A Complete Guide to Writing Oral History, and Refusing Racism: White Allies and the Struggle for Civil Rights. Her oral history of Septima Clark, entitled Ready from Within: Septima Clark and the Civil Rights Movement, won an American Book Award in 1987.

Cynthia kept up with the emerging field of world history and, in 1991, learned the term and the idea of big history by reading an article by David Christian. Big history fit her worldview, and she became an early big historian with the publication of Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present (2007). She became a founding board member of the International Big History Association (2010) and co-authored the first university textbook of big history with David Christian and Craig Benjamin — Big History: Between Nothing and Everything (2014). Her last book was Big History, Small World: From the Big Bang to You (2017), a book aimed at high-school students and teachers. Cynthia helped established the big history program at Dominican University and continued active work on big history into her last weeks.

In 1984 Cynthia met, and later married, Jack Robbins, an architect and city planner. They trekked the Baltoro Glacier to the K2 Mountain base camp and hiked the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the Arctic Ocean. Together they climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and went trekking three times to Central Asia. They traveled and hiked in Nepal, Spain, Eastern Europe, El Salvador, Zimbabwe, Italy, South Korea and Japan. Above all, Cynthia and Jack were always close to their large family. Her beloved Jack died in August 2016.

Cynthia is survived by her beloved sons Erik (Jaime North) and Ivor (Alison Keene), her beloved stepchildren, Deborah (Rudy Pagliaccio), Peter (Kluane) and Daniel (Marianna Eraklis) Robbins, and ten grandchildren: Lola, Ruby, Aidan, Gigi, Isabella, Henry, Alexi, Tasia, Melina and Sydney. In addition, her brother Jim Stokes (Jo Ann Czekalski), Susan Hill (Ray), and Fran Berry (Bill), four nieces and nephews, and five step-nieces and nephews survive her.

Donations in her honor may be sent to the Big History Program at Dominican University of California, c/o Mojgan Behmand, or to the International Big History Association.