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Hofstra University Library Special Collections

Diverse Suburbs Oral History Collection

Theme: Family

Clips from the Hezekiah Brown Interview


HB: Okay. Well, first of all, thanks for inviting me. I am just certainly delighted to be here. But, I came from-My livelihood is quite unique compared to maybe some of those others you interviewed. I was born in a little place called Pritchard, Alabama, a small place, about 50,000 residents, but a very, very poor community. My father did not graduate from high school, and neither did my mother graduate from high school. And I came from a family of 11. And, very fortunately, of that II, 10 are still alive, and we are a very close family. The reason I say it's unique is because, generally speaking, you hear many folks refer to a broken family? Well, even after the 11 kids, my mother and father separated, divorced, and one went one way, one went the other way. And, but what it really did for us is that we learned to mold together as a family, the children we did, and we helped and supported each other, and still do the same thing until today. And so that's...

JL: Where are you of the 11?

HB: I'm the oldest boy. I'm the third child.

JL: Oldest boy, third child? So two daughters and then you were born? And what did they do to make a living; your dad or your mom?

HB: My dad worked at a-For an African-American, he had one of the good jobs in the south. He worked for Alabama Dry Dock and Ship Building Company, and they, obviously, were the ship-building company. And that's where he worked until he decided to quit. And my mother was a, oh, what do you call it, the people 'Who-She was a housekeeper. She took in..

JL: Domestic?

HB: Domestic work. She did that kind of work, and that was her role.

JL: But she stayed at home and she would go...

HB: She stayed at home. Yes, yes. She was not the kind where you go out and work. She stayed at home, and she was the first one we saw when we came home from school.

JL: Oh. So she did her work for other people at home?

HB: Hm-hmm, hm-hmm.

JL: You mean like...

HB: We would go out and, for example, to do clothing, we would go out and pick the clothing up and bring it back, and she would wash and iron the clothing. And that's how, you know, she made kind of some additional funds for the family.

JL: All right. And you said they broke up and ...

HB: Yeah.

JL: How old were you when that happened?

HB: I probably was about 12, 13 years old or something like that.

JL: Do you remember that well when that happened?

HB: Oh sure, sure. That is something you will never forget, you know. It stays within you as an individual, and you learn a lot from that, you know. One of the things I took from that, you know, is that, you know, if I were ever to get married I would never walk away from my wife and I’d never walk away from my family. And my father was an abuser, you know what I mean, a wife abuser, and I took from that that I would never do that. And I think most of my brothers took the same thing away from it because we all have been married for a long time. My wife and I just celebrated 51 years of marriage, you know, and...

JL: Congratulations.

HB: And you know, we're never going to divorce, we're never going to separate. But, as I said again, are a lot of things in your life that you see if you can take those mistakes that other folks make and then turn those into a positive. And thank God, I was able to do that. Yeah.

JL: You absolutely were.

HB: Yeah.

JL: Did you maintain contact with your father after he left the family?

HB: No, My father disappeared for 25 years, and we never knew where he was, what he was doing, whether he was dead or alive. And what really happened is that when-The way he was found is that my brother who owns a business down in Alabama, and down in there they have what is called the, on a religious station, the radio news. And he was like, I guess, living with some lady and she died, and so they put it on the news that, you know, Sam Brown is here and if anybody know any of his family contact my brother. Somebody heard and called my brother, and he sent my other brother down to Florida to pick him up and bring him back to Alabama. But he was very ill at the time. And we were so delighted that he wasn't dead, until all of us who were spread all over the country, we all headed for home to see him. Again, it's one of those things that, you know, in marriages you never can tell what go on, what make people do what they do. But we all like, not instantly, but over the next few months we all forgave him. Because one of the things that-I think I've been very successful in life and I wonder sometime how, had I had all the things that other folks had, would I have been as successful, you know? So, as taking another negative and turning it into a positive, I think that we, my entire family, had a work ethic. You know, whatever job we had we wanted to be the best workers on the job. We wanted to be productive. We wanted to produce. And I think it helped all of us, you know. So it didn't mean that we were a broken family. It meant that we were a family without a mother and father. But ultimately, my mother came back and came around, you know. And so, you know, she came back and...

JL: Wait. I'm sorry. Maybe I missed something. So your mother left too?

HB: Yeah.

JL: At the same time?

HB: Not at the same time, at a different time.

JL: How much later?

HB: Maybe six months to a year.

JL: She just had to...

HB: Moved out.

JL: And both of these events, were they announced or were they sudden?

HB: They didn't announce anything during that period of time. They just did what they was going to do and that was it, you know.

JL: So that left you as the oldest male. At that time probably you had a very significant role?

HB: That's correct. Yeah. Hm-hmm, hm-hmm.

JL: And so you were 12 years old?

HB: I may have been a little bit older. But what happened is, during the summer, it is what is called, you ever heard of migrant farm workers?

JL: Hm-hmm.

HB: Okay. Then that's what we would do, the young people do in the summer. We would get on a truck and go from Alabama to Virginia to work in the field to make money to buy clothes or whatever you need during that time. And so, that's what we did, you know. As a matter of fact, my father left with us the last time we saw him. And then we went to a place called King Ferry, New York, and that was the last time I saw him, and the next time was 25 years. I saw him in a wheelchair.

JL: Wow. That's pretty amazing. But I'm thinking that if you have-if there are three of you, and then after that there's eight others, that the youngest must have been very young at the time that your mother left.

HB: They were very young. But, again, the difference is in where we lived. When they say the community, it takes a community to raise a child? Well, that's exactly what happened, you know, with my younger brother and all of them. It was the community. If not, my one brother who lived in Amityville, you know, he sent for one of my brothers and I took one of my brothers. And we had one brother who stayed there, and actually it really was the community who raised him. He was a great athlete and should have went on to college and did great things, but he decided not to. But other than that, you know, we all helped each other along the way. My other-I have a sister who lived in Buffalo. She also took another sister. So it was almost like as the older ones, when we got a little bit older, we took somebody in.

JL: So at first you were all together in the same house?

HB: Yes.

JL: And did any other people in the community move in with you, or were you just running the household as teenagers by yourselves?

HB: We just ran the household as the best we could. That's exactly what we did.

JL: And what did you do? You dress-I mean, did you send your, dress them to go to school? I mean what did you do literally in the house?

HB: We did all the things that needed to be done. We would cook. We would do clothes. We would discipline. We did all those things that one would do. And it, like I said, it just was a phenomenal kind of thing when you think and you look back. When you look at all of us now, how molded we are still together after all these years. And we are a family that we have a family reunion every year and, because we kind of spread out. I have a sister in Chicago. I have a sister in Buffalo, a brother in Brentwood, and a brother in Williamsburg, Virginia. Sorry, not Williamsburg but Fredericksburg. And then the rest of them migrated back to Alabama, because that's where my mother kind of came around and came back. She moved to Amityville, Long Island, and then the rest of the smaller kids and everybody moved with her, and then she remarried and moved back to Alabama, and they followed her back. So now I think it's five, six of them still in Alabama now.