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.
DETROIT — 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.