Celebrating Black History: Reginald Brown

Celebrating Black History: Reginald Brown
Source: Brown family
Source: Brown family
Source: Brown family
Source: Brown family
Source: WAFB
Source: WAFB

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - When 9News arrived at the home of City Constable Reginald Brown and his wife Gayle, he has stitches holding one eye closed.

"Did it occur to you to tell me you were having eye surgery and maybe put off this interview," WAFB's Donna Britt asks. "I really don't think about it," Brown says and laughs.

We are at his home to look at the memories of this 70-year-old. Major Brown was alive during the height of segregation, so he saw the "white" and "colored" water fountains and sat in special sections of local businesses. Brown remembers his childhood across the river. "We went to the movie in Maringouin, blacks sat upstairs, whites sat downstairs. Right across from the movie theater was the Dairy Queen. You go to Dairy Queen there were two lines. There was line for, at that time, there was colored and white," says Brown.

Reggie's mom taught him to be different, to stand apart. "My mother had always taught me that unity was important, ya' know, 'United we stand, divided we fall.' She taught me that acceptance and getting along was better."

Brown said from kindergarten through high school, his schools were all segregated. Because of that, he did not get to know white people as friends often. One of his first jobs was working at a gas station on the corner of Florida Blvd. and Eugene. There was a white girl, whose father worked at the Exxon plant, and Brown's gas station just happened to be Exxon. The dad asked the young men working at the gas station to keep an eye out for the safety of his daughter. She lived near Baton Rouge High and walked every day to Sacred Heart School. Brown said the men would say friendly things and began to think of her as their responsibility. She warmed up to them. Their friendships bloomed. Brown said that relationship showed him that there were whites who were different and who would not reject him because of his color.

One of Brown's biggest passions is community service. He was one of the founding members of Holiday Helpers 30 years ago. They met in the dining room of what was then the Inn on the Lake. It was a hotel that was later taken down to build the Louisiana Court of Appeals. Brown said there was a mix of races at the table, blacks and whites who thought Baton Rouge should have a big dinner for Thanksgiving for people who might now get any.

Now Brown said, "There will be churches and charities who will have food on for the holiday." But his friends would hear none of it. They wanted to offer direct aid with their own feast for the poor. Officials at the Inn on the Lake checked and Independence Hall was open. Brown knew one of the chefs at the hotel, Chef Bailey, and asked him if he would cook the meal with all the trimmings. Bailey lined up friends to be his kitchen staff and the meal was on with just two weeks to put it all together. Brown thought it couldn't be done, but with the Inn on the Lake already on board, they went for it.

One of the half dozen planners said, "Reggie, I'm good at finances, I'll handle those, and you're good at lining up volunteers. You know everybody."

Brown is still one of the best at lining up good-hearted people to make it happen, evidenced by helicopters, giant holiday meals at the River Center, and gifts to give children at an underprivileged school.

In 2016, Santa Claus and the "Mizzus" at Bellingrath Hills Elementary, the kids are all dressed in pajamas to welcome the "big man." And because of the August floods, there are flood victims in this crowd. Holiday Helpers has been able to use choppers since day one, 30 years ago. It lifts parties above the ordinary and makes a lifelong memory.

In Brown's home, a table is spread with photo albums and memorabilia that wife, Gayle, has found for 9News.

Britt finds a black and white picture of a helicopter landing in 1966. Brown exclaims that was "when it was at Expressway Park." Turns out he was Santa for Holiday Helpers and wore a white beard made of cotton to try to look authentic. "That's me! And after I landed in the helicopter in South Baton Rouge, then the parade starts," says Brown.

They always try to make the event thrilling and a time to remember for participants. Because Brown was twice the size he is now, and had a big heart to match, he played Santa a lot. He told Britt about a family who called him in July and asked him to visit a hospital for a little girl who would not live until Christmas. She had always wanted to meet Santa. Brown said he was sweltering in the cotton beard and flannel costume, but made quite the sensation when he walked through the pediatric ward to hug the little girl's neck and present a few gifts.

Brown says his mother was his role model. He tells the story of her job search after the U.S. Army in 1944. His uncle had also been in the Army with her, and in the Army, she had been a postal manager. It seemed natural that she should apply for work at the Baton Rouge Post Office.

"She got out, she took the post office test. They told her she'd passed it and they had some good news and some bad news," he said. "But when she came down, the good news was she passed the test, but the bad news was that they couldn't offer her a job because they didn't have bathroom facilities on the inside for colored." Brown says his mother regrouped and became a teacher.

Brown has worked so many jobs! He had worked on the back of a garbage truck. He was a "grease monkey," as his friends at the gas station called him. He applied years after his mom and delivered mail for a while. He said that really helped him when he worked for the Sheriff's Office and also when he ran for Constable because he actually knew so many people from his daily walks on his mail route.

You may have always called him "Major Brown." Many still do. It turns out Brown was originally turned down when he applied to be a deputy under Sheriff Al Amiss in the mid-1960s.

He was working in Southern University's business office when Sheriff Amiss called him to offer him a job. Brown says, "At the time, Southern was suffering budget cuts and had to lay off some workers. They were going to lay off a man in the next office who had three children."

The man asked Brown if he knew of any jobs. Brown thought, the sheriff had called him with a job opening, so Brown asked Amiss if he would hire the father of three instead. Brown says Amiss told him no, that the job was for Brown or someone else the Sheriff would find. It bothered Brown, and his mother said to pray about it, which he did. Brown then went to his supervisor in the Southern Business Office. Could the man who was about to be laid off be hired for Brown's job? Brown told his boss about the offer he had finally received after all these years from the Sheriff. His supervisor said if Brown was willing to train the other man, that he would consent to the switch. And that's how Brown finally began what would be decades as a deputy in the Sheriff's Office.

By that time he started, there were black deputies, but few in the higher ranks of the department. Years later, when Brown became the first black to become a Major and the first Chief Administrative Officer, one deputy accused him of being a token. That same critic, three years later, said, "Hey, good job." Brown has lived in a world that was racist, but Brown has not been a protester.

"You can do more about working and keeping your mouth shut and getting the job done, and making a difference than you can by challenging and struggling with those types of situations to prove to somebody in conversation how things are. Do it in action, just, just do it. That's all!"

As Brown and Britt snack on cupcakes offered by Gayle, Britt is thinking about the fact that after decades in the Sheriff's Office, Brown has now been our City Constable for 17 years, still serving others, and still jolly. In fact, he's been jolly his entire life!

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