Posted by: beachchairandabook | February 24, 2016

Black History Tribute to My Mother

Marie Johnson Brown

“I should have been a history teacher.” It was my mother’s mantra, especially during Black History Month. Instead, she became a home economics teacher, but African American history remained her passion. She was born in 1915 and lived through the eras of colored, Negro, black and African  American. It was African American that she embraced, especially since family lore placed what is modern-day Ghana as her maternal ancestral homeland. (The genealogical research continues.)

Marie Johnson Brown was born in 1915, a “late baby” and only child to her 55 year old father and 44 year old mother. Her love of history began as a Daddy’s girl. My grandparents owned a 68 acre farm in Harford County, Maryland. They called it Mt. Pleasant and while following her father around on his chores, she heard stories about “Hat Tubman”, Frederick Douglass and the Quaker who would bind his horse’s hooves with burlap to ferry slaves across the Maryland/Pennsylvania border at night. According to my grandfather’s tale, this man could be heard whistling on his way back in the early morning hours. Each time we traveled to our family reunion across from Asbury Church in Bel Air, she would point out the spot where his journey was said to have begun.

After graduating from Princess Anne Academy (now University of Maryland Eastern Shore) and Virginia State,  my mother came by train in 1937 to teach at Kennard High School in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland. She was offered a job with a salary of $80.00 per month to teach home economics and science at the school built for the county’s African American students. During her 70 years in the county, she collected almost every article she could find on the achievement of local African Americans.  She filled cardboard file boxes with  high school yearbooks, graduation programs, lessons plans, prom, graduation and sports team pictures. She was passionate about the school where her teaching career began and until she passed away, determined to keep its legacy alive.

My mother was a well-known, minor hoarder. We laughed at her reluctance to throw anything away – folded up newspaper crosswords, recipes, the Soap Opera Digest, Jet and Ebony magazines from the 1950s and greeting cards stretching back to the Year One. If there was an article written about the championship games of the Baltimore Colts (yes, those Colts) and Orioles, my mother owned it. I can’t count the number of times she played the DVD of Iron Man Cal Ripken’s 400th home run. If anybody in the family needed a childhood  picture from when they were toothless or in pigtails  they knew to ask Aunt Marie.

There was a bonus to her compulsion. She owned invaluable pieces of African American history including a 19th century graduation program from Howard University, photos from early 20th century life on an HBCU campus, a 1916 course catalog from Hampton University, and a program from a recital by the great Roland Hayes. I don’t know how she came to  own it, but among her collection was the 1930s ledger from a local church, listing members, their tithes and those considered “backsliders.” One of her most prized possessions was a letter to her parents from the office of their Baltimore lawyer, Thurgood Marshall.

One February my mother decide that more exposure was necessary for local African American history. By then she was in her 80s, and although she had suffered three strokes, still owned enough of her mind to put this project together. She put in a call to our county library. When they agreed to host the exhibit, she and I went to work. From her many file folders and boxes of articles and pictures, she chose those of local interest – segregation-era black businesses, a newspaper article on a World War I veteran, an honor given to a long-time municipal employee and of course, her beloved Kennard. There were pictures of the original old Kennard (which became Kennard Elementary) and new Kennard High School built just across the street.

She chose the pictures and articles. She wrote the captions. I typed the text and mounted each item. When the display was done to her satisfaction, I took it to the library, along with a sculpture of a proud Buffalo Soldier in full uniform. It was placed at the entrance where everyone could enjoy her efforts. Later, she was interviewed by a local reporter. If my mother had her way the call would have gone on for hours, turning into an impromptu introduction to local African American history.

I have inherited those boxes, file folders and photos, all in need of better preservation than I can give. Whenever I  discover a long-lost, forgotten treasure, or sometimes new treasure, I’m reminded of her straight-ahead, unwavering dedication to our history. Well done, Miss Marie!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Responses

  1. This is great. Did not know her name was Marie. I remember going thru my mom’s many bins too. We had an obit of every black person in the city seemed like. I asked my dad if they were relatives before throwing some away. Good to know history and where we came from.

    • Thanks for reading. Yes, you both share a name.:) I guess the saving of obits must be a tradition. I found wedding programs, too! We’ve got to keep our history intact.

  2. It’s a wonderful legacy your mother left you. I can only imagine the joy it brings you. I lost my mother when I was only 19, she was 41. Nonetheless, I have fond memories of her. One of the things that strikes me when reading your essay, actually chills me, is that your family owned a 68 acre farm in Maryland. What chills me is that, from what little I know, so many Black farmers where dispossessed of their property by racist practices of that era. How did your family fare in the face of these unfair practices?
    Felton

    • Yes, she did. As I go through her things, I’m discovering more. When we would have conversations, she’d drop a piece of knowledge, and I’d say “why didn’t you tell me before?” It was because she had so much stored away.:) As far as the farm. she told me that they lost it during the Depression, but unfortunately I don’t know the details. Thanks for reading and responding.


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