Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity

November 5, 2021

Remembering Dr. Millie Bown Russell

The Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity learned the sad news that Dr. Millie Bown Russell passed away on November 1, 2021.

Born in 1926 and raised in the Seattle central area, Dr. Russell was one of seven children born to Augustus and Edith Bown. Dr. Russell was guided into pursuing an education in the health sciences by her parents who saw a need for more African American health care providers and Black representation in the sciences, or what we refer to today as STEM. She was a member of the first graduating class of Seattle University in 1948, and was the first African American to graduate with a B.S. in medical technology from the college. In 1971 she returned to Seattle University and received a secondary science-teaching certificate. In 1978 Dr. Russell received an M.S. in kinesiology from the University of Washington and ten years later, she earned her Ph.D. in Education at the age of 62.

As a young college student Dr. Russell helped found a college chapter of the NAACP where she had an opportunity to travel to the south with Thurgood Marshall and witness first-hand the experiences of the Black community and the civil right battles in the south. She later recounted how this experience helped shape her views locally and solidify her lifelong commitment to civil rights activism. “Civil rights was important, and that was my volunteer work – but I also liked health care and I liked making precise decisions about what is important for a person’s health care needs.” Dr. Russell went on to be a trailblazer, leading teams of researchers at the King County Central Blood Bank and training scores of healthcare professionals in hematology. She spoke about healthcare as a civil rights issue and the need to address inequities.

Dr. Russell began working at the University of Washington in 1974 in a career that would span three decades and impact countless students, faculty and staff not only on the UW campus, but across the nation. Her first role at UW was as director of the Preprofessional Program for Minority Students in Health Sciences. Later she became Assistant to the Vice President, Office of Minority Affairs and an instructor in the biological sciences.

Former UW VP for the Office of Minority Affair and Diversity and now Chancellor of the University of Washington Tacoma, Sheila Edwards Lange once recounted, “Millie is a connector – I think part of Millie’s greatness is that she can bring people together who might otherwise not meet and get them to see the value of working together.” Common themes surrounding those who remember Dr. Russell are connection, compassion, equity, and a selflessness in the way she invested herself in the success of others.

Dr. Russell also founded the Early Scholars Outreach Program, designed to prepare underrepresented middle-school students and their families for higher education. According to a 2007 profile written about Dr. Russell, the Early Scholars Outreach Program was the inspiration for what would later be known as the national GEAR UP program that now serves thousands of pre-college students across the state of Washington. Her dedication to increasing access to college and creating pathways for underrepresented and first-generation students was relentless. She had a particular focus on removing barriers of entry into the STEM fields, like the field of study that she herself was persuaded to study. Russell once confessed during an interview that teaching was not initially in her plans, however while working for the King County Central Blood Bank there was a need for someone to teach, and she stepped up to the challenge. Since answering that call, she became a mentor, adviser, role model, and teacher to thousands of students who still tell stories about her impact on their lives.

Emile Pitre, advisor to the VP and longtime friend and colleague to Russell shares excerpts from his upcoming book From Revolution to Evolution: The Story of the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity at the University of Washington, stories about Russell from Lette Hadgu, former director for GEAR UP, the program that Russell help model on a national level. “She had a lot to offer, and she did it with love and great commitment. Millie was connected not only to the University but also well connected to the Black community in particular, and the community in general. She was very resourceful and a fighter for justice and equality. She also cared deeply about the well-being of students, especially minority and disadvantaged ones.” Additionally, “ She was a voice for those who didn’t have one. Millie’s main focus was to see minority and disadvantaged young students better prepared for college, have equal access to higher education institutions, and succeed.”

The true impact of Dr. Russell’s contributions to the University of Washington may never truly be known. Nor will the impact she had on the countless underrepresented and first-generation students that she personally worked with to attend and graduate from UW. Rickey Hall, current VP for OMA&D, says, “There is no doubt about it.  Her impact was vast and will have ripple effects for generations.”

Through her lifelong civil rights work and perseverance to expand diversity, equity and inclusion on campus, Dr. Russell has received numerous awards and accolades from many organizations. Some honors include being the recipient of the OMA&D Charles E. Odegaard award in 1981, the University of Washington’s highest diversity award, and in 2001 the City of Seattle declaring Dr. Millie L. Russell day.

“The University of Washington and certainly the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity is saddened by the loss of such a powerful advocate for college access and the college success of our students,” says University Diversity Officer and Vice President for OMA&D, Rickey Hall. “She single-handedly changed the course of generations of lives for the better. Her legacy is the hundreds, if not thousands of students who credit her for their educational success, and the multitude of colleagues who learned from her over the years. Our sincere condolences go out to her friends and family on their loss.”

When she retired in June 2007, the University of Washington Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity established the Dr. Millie Russell Endowed Scholarship in honor of her lifelong devotion to education and equality. The Dr. Millie Russell Endowed Scholarship benefits underrepresented, low-income, first-generation students interested in studying science. To make a contribution to the Dr, Millie Russell Endowed Scholarship fund visit https://www.washington.edu/giving/make-a-gift/?source_typ=3&source=RUSSCH.


A previous version of this post contained errors. We inaccurately listed Dr. Russell’s year of birth as 1929. Dr. Russell was born in 1926. Additionally, we originally reported that Dr. Russell was one of eight children, instead of one of seven children. We apologize to the Russell family for these errors. For more information and details about memorial services, please see Dr. Millie Bown Russell’s obituary.