In the early 1960s, when much of Miami-Dade County remained segregated, Millie and Harold Cowan’s South Miami neighbors called the police to complain about an African-American guest at the Cowan home.
Then someone burned a cross on their lawn, a hallmark of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Cowans were among the first whites in the community to host people of all races and raise money for civil rights efforts.
Millie “was taking a principle and a stand when others were scared to do it,” said their daughter, Juanita Brown, of Burnsville. “She had a lot of fun doing it.”
She was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union’s first chapter south of the Mason-Dixon line and board member of the First Unitarian Church who got involved in a range of human-rights issues, from supporting the United Farm Workers to fighting discrimination against Cubans.
Born Mildred Rovner on November 14,1921, in Philadelphia, to Russian immigrants, Cowan died June 28 at her summer home in Burnsville, N.C., after learning that she had an advanced cancer, which her daughter said she decided not to treat. She was 90.
Underlying all that her mother accomplished with the committment o value all people, regardless of their ethnicity, her daughter said.
Her partner in her endeavors, for 68 years: Harold Cowan, was a childhood sweetheart.
Harold played baseball, a year-round pursuit in South Florida, to which the couple relocated in the 1940s. Harold built the family home, which would later host civil-rights gatherings.
He died in 2009, by then a well-known builder of luxury homes in the Pinecrest area.
Although Millie was born Jewish, she found her spiritual home at the First Unitarian Church, a center for social activists engaged in human rights and poverty issues, and liberal politics.
She joined the Jefferson Club, a book club that later developed into a group of friends who that got engaged in social community issues.
“It started as a reading club, but they believed in democracy and the rights of all people,” Juanita Brown said. “They did things that were unpopular because they stood up for justice of all people.”
In 1955, Cowan helped establish the Miami Chapter of the ACLU. She organized fundraisers for the group, fought to integrate lunch counters and public beaches, and against the Vietnam War.
She worked to remove prayer from the public schools, and campaigned for politicians who supported civil rights, many of whom won.
As Miami-Dade’s Hispanic community began to grow in the 1960s, Cowan got involved in its welfare. She was especially interested in the United Farm Workers Union, which began as a Mexican migrant-labor rights movement in California that spread to other agricultural states, including Florida.
The Cowans hosted movement founder Cesar Chavez at their home.
“She was a steady-handed, progressive person who put herself on the line for the causes she believed in,” said Janet McAliley, former member of the Miami-Dade County School Board and another longtime activist.
In 1973, the Cowans bought an abandoned farm in Burnsville, which they renovated and stocked with barnyard animals. This farm became their home but it was also the place that helped Millie and Harold channel their grief after the death of her son, Michael Cowan, in 1974 at age 24.
“They would go out to look into the mountains and just cry,” said Brown.
The physical labor ithat the farm required — and the stray puppy they adopted — helped them heal, she said.
Millie got involved in that community, serving on the board of the Yancey Foundation, and the Yancey Mental Health Association, where she volunteered.
“She taught me that in every stage of life, you can still make a contribution,” said Juanita Brown. “It was about thinking of people, and people who didn’t have enough.”
Ten years ago, Millie Cowan summed up her world view in a magazine essay.
“What have I learned about this trip from the cradle to now? That life is neither all good, nor all bad, but a mosaic of events, opportunities, successes and failures...days of joy and elation, along with times of sadness and helplessness…. The force of life propels us onward to an end (or new beginning) we each define in our own way.”
A Celebration of Remembrance for Millie Cowan will be held on August 25 in North Carolina. E-mail Juanita Brown for further details: at email@example.com. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in Millie’s name to Hospice of Yancey County, 856 Georges Fork Road, Burnsville, NC 28714.