Writing history from his past Black life: A former educator writes about segregation in Anne Arundel schools.

February 25, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

An old wooden box that once held bottles of Dr. Swan's Liver and Kidney Cure is at the heart of author Philip L. Brown's work.

"Everything I write comes back to this old thing," said Mr. Brown, 87, plunging his wrinkled hand inside the container of family history that holds yellowed life insurance policies, wrinkled bills and letters inked in shaky script.

The documents, first collected by his father, were among the sources of inspiration for Mr. Brown's two histories of local black life in the 20th century -- "A Century of 'Separate But Equal' in Anne Arundel County" and "The Other Annapolis." Community leaders cited those books, as well as Mr. Brown's work as a teacher, in giving him an award in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s memory last month.

"He's been a pioneer," said Carl O. Snowden, a community leader who organized the ceremony. "He may very well be the only person of African-American descent who has chronicled a history of life in the African-American community here during that time period."

Mr. Brown is literally part of the local scene in Annapolis. His fading portrait sits on one of the planks boarding up the smashed windows at Wiley H. Bates High, a now-abandoned school for blacks where he worked for 25 years as a teacher and vice principal.

By the time Bates closed in 1981, Mr. Brown had discovered a new career as a historian and writer. It was an endeavor he seemed headed for even as a child, when he collected church programs, magazine articles and pretty much anything else with writing on it.

"History is in my blood," Mr. Brown said recently from the book-lined study of his Arundel on the Bay home. "I didn't have any choice."

The dapper, genteel Annapolitan, who wears a handkerchief in his coat pocket, can't resist the lure of dusty documents. Almost every childhood memory sends Mr. Brown rummaging through his house for proof that the recollection is real.

In the course of a conversation, he found the 1906 subscription receipt for a newspaper he and his 12 brothers and sisters read while growing up in their three-bedroom house at 117 Spa Road. He retrieved meat and vegetable receipts from the grocery store his father owned in a white neighborhood at 303 West St. And he recovered an undertaker's bill for $160.61 when remembering a brother, Joseph, who died in 1924.

He retired from the school system at age 71, but did not finish his first book for another decade, slowly writing chapters on the history of the county's segregated schools from a linoleum table in his kitchen. He completed the next book, a look at black life in Annapolis from 1900 to 1950, two years ago.

"Everything I read rang true to me," said Helen Weatherford, Mr. Brown's longtime secretary at Bates, who typed his manuscripts.

And he continues to write. A blue plastic bin sits on his desk with notes on eight chapters of the history of Mount Moriah AME Church in Annapolis. For inspiration, he has sketched a white paper cover with the church's crest and wrapped it around a book.

Mr. Brown was 19 when he started working as a teacher in two-room schools in Annapolis. He had been teaching for two years when he met Rachel Hall at the Skidmore school -- she taught the lower grades while he instructed the older children.

The two were married by 1928, when he graduated from Bowie Normal School. Soon after that, he got a job at the Stanton School in Annapolis, where he taught fifth grade in the same classroom where teacher William Butler had instructed him 20 years earlier. By 1947, he had received a bachelor's degree from Morgan State College and had begun his career at Bates.

Obtaining a master's degree was more difficult because the University of Maryland was off-limits to black graduate students. So Mr. and Mrs. Brown drove to Manhattan every weekend for Saturday classes at New York University, where they graduated together in 1955.

The next year, Mr. Brown was promoted from his seventh- and eighth-grade teacher's job and made vice principal at Bates. The school on Smithville Street enrolled up to 2,100 students a year -- and Mr. Brown got to know the troublemakers.

"They called it vice principal because you dealt with all the vices," said Mr. Brown, who still gets stopped by former students -- many of them with gray hair. "I walked the halls every day -- I knew many of them so well. Like a cop on the beat."

Although a rewarding job, it also frustrated him. His sons, Philip Jr. and Errol, were attending segregated schools in the county while black children elsewhere were going to schools already integrated under court order.

Nevertheless, Mr. Brown fondly remembers Bates as a place that unified the black community.

"There were very few black families in this county that weren't touched in some way by this school," he said. "This place holds quite a little story."

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