For automobile writer, cars have long been synonymous with freedom

October 15, 2011

Warren Brown has been reviewing cars for The Washington Post for 29 years, but his relationship with the auto industry is rooted deep in his family’s history — and in the broader history of the civil rights movement.

This thing about cars and Detroit, it’s personal with me. I am coming to grips with it now, a few days before the rescheduled dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, while sitting in a wing of General Motors’ headquarters overlooking the Detroit River.

I am here attending the centennial celebration of GM’s Chevrolet Motor Division, which is appropriate in so many ways.

Cars and Chevrolet, the latter for reasons of nothing more than youthful aspiration, have long meant freedom to me — the tangible, physical elation of being free, or, at least, of tasting freedom’s possibilities.

It began in my home town of New Orleans in the 1950s in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward. Back then, the “Lower Nine,” as we called it, was not the horrible place portrayed in the national media during the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The Lower Nine was black, mostly because blacks were not allowed to live in too many other places in then racially segregated Crescent City. But it was not a place of universally grinding, hopeless poverty.

There were people such as my parents, the late Daniel Thomas Brown Sr. and Lillian Gadison-Provost Brown. They were educated, accomplished people — professionals, albeit not necessarily paid as such.

My father was a scientist by training, born in Natchez, Miss. He was a man of Madagascan and Natchez Trace Indian descent, a grandson of American slaves, who had served honorably in the Army Medical Corps in World War II in Italy and North Africa.

He wanted to become a medical doctor after the war. But his skin was black, and no one at the then strictly white-only medical schools at Tulane University in New Orleans or Louisiana State University would have him.

He could have become an angry black man and probably would have had it not been for Mother Katharine Drexel, who is now a saint in the Roman Catholic Church.

Drexel founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, an order of nuns that also established Xavier Preparatory School and Xavier University in New Orleans, the latter where my father received his pre-med education before the war.

The schools, like the religious order that founded them, were dedicated to the education of blacks, Native Americans and other people of color.

My father was a Blessed Sacrament student (as was nearly everyone, in later years, in my immediate family). The nuns encouraged him to overcome his frustrations at trying to become a doctor by using his talents in mathematics and science to educate future generations of black and Native American physicians and pharmacists.

My father, a convert to Roman Catholicism, followed the lead of the Blessed Sacrament sisters and dedicated his life to the education of medical people of color. I still run into some of his former students in my travels.

My parents always complained that they were “victims of status discrepancy,” treated as second-class citizens because of their skin color with no regard for the content of their characters or the possibilities of their talents. It was a complaint, not a whine. Race and racism were banned in my family as excuses for failure. My father certainly gave them no audience.

For example, I once accused a white priest at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans of being a “racist” for giving me low marks in geometry and chemistry. My father replied by ordering me to work the geometry and chemistry problems in question. I could not do one of them properly. My father’s terse assessment: “The priest might be a racist. But until you can work these problems, you are stupid. As long as you are stupid, it does not matter that he is a racist.”

He walked away.

My parents were very proud people.

My mother, Lillian, a black French Creole from New Iberia, La., dreaded using public buses. She hated sitting behind the “Colored Only” signs on public trolleys. She would rather walk, or call one of the colored cab companies in New Orleans, or hitch a ride with one of her black Ninth Ward friends who had a car or a truck.

My father was no different.

Daddy, which is what all six of us Brown children called him, even as adults, would be talkative and happy until the moment he boarded one of those segregated public city buses with one or several of us in tow. He would then become morbidly silent, bitter — physically cold. His transformation lasted until we disembarked. Happy Daddy would come back again.

Talk of owning a car filled many of our family’s conversations, usually instigated by my mother.

“Dan,” she’d begin, addressing my father, “if we had our own car, we wouldn’t have to put up with those problems.”

And it would go on from there, sometimes for hours. I’d offer my two cents, advising that we “buy a Chevrolet and see the U.S.A.,” like that Dinah Shore woman sang about in the commercials.

But our first car was a Rambler made by American Motors — smaller and less expensive than the winged Chevrolet Bel Air sedan I wanted. Still, it really did not matter. It could have been a Cadillac. It was just fun being able to drive where we wanted without being told to sit behind a “Colored Only” sign. It made us children feel good to see our parents freed, albeit temporarily, from the humiliating burdens of Jim Crow.

Other cars followed, including a full-bodied Chevrolet Impala and several Cadillacs, including a snazzy coupe, largely thanks to my mother’s ability to persuade several of her white bosses that it was time for them to buy a new car and let her “take that old thing off your hands” — at a discount, of course.

Meanwhile, in nearby Montgomery, Ala., another woman of color, Rosa Parks, had decided to take on Jim Crow more deliberately. In December 1955, she refused to give up her seat to a white patron on a public Montgomery bus. That led to a successful, year-long boycott of the city’s segregated buses by black consumers — a civil rights protest largely enabled by a system of “private taxis,” black people with cars giving rides to black people in need of transportation.

At home in New Orleans, my father often commented on the “genius” of the Montgomery bus boycott and the “guts” and “smarts” of the young Baptist minister leading it, Martin Luther King Jr. But he advised that we Brown children stick to our studies and stay out of “that civil rights trouble,” which he feared would grow violent.

We found various ways to disobey Daddy, mostly by sharing car rides, walking whenever possible and generally avoiding the use of segregated buses in an unannounced boycott of public transportation in New Orleans by black students.

In collective action, the civil rights protests worked. The Jim Crow signs were removed from public transportation throughout the South. New, federal public-accommodations laws meant blacks no longer were confined to the Ninth Ward or the Seventh Ward in New Orleans. The city’s poverty became concentrated as middle- and upper-income black families took advantage of new opportunities and moved out.

I sometimes wonder whether fewer poor people would have drowned in the waters of Hurricane Katrina if the Ninth Ward had not lost most of its middle- and upper-income black families, many of whom owned cars and trucks. There would have been more blacks with cars to offer rides to neighbors.

But life is like that, I suppose. One thing leads to another, like being here in Detroit at this moment in history writing this piece.

Detroit has become a second home to me. I have come here so often over so many years writing car stories that it has turned into a kind of manifest destiny, just as it was for so many of my onetime neighbors who left New Orleans and other places in the South in pursuit of “good work” and “fair pay” in the nation’s automobile assembly plants.

Now, many of the children of those onetime black emigres are returning to a South officially free of racial discrimination to work in foreign-owned car plants that almost put Detroit out of business.

But Detroit remains. I have loved and hated this place, just as it has loved and hated me, depending on the story of the moment. But I have always valued Detroit’s history as a place of black refuge and upward mobility.

It is a city that knows something about suffering and hard times. But more important, it is a city that knows something about the power of redemption.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post.
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