When 21-year-old William Brown asked 19-year-old Annie Randall if he could walk her home from the Shiloh Baptist Church, she said no, she didn't walk with strangers. But William persisted and four years later, they were married.
Although 72 years have passed since their wedding day, William still calls Anne "Sweetheart."
"They're inseparable," says daughter-in-law Billie Brown. "He doesn't want her away from him at all."
Always a taciturn man, William now spends most of his time upstairs in his bedroom, with its old-fashioned flowered wallpaper and cherry wood twin beds. At 97, he is blind but he can sense Annie's presence and calls for her when she's gone. Annie at 95, spry with a snow-white bun and sparkling eyes, cheerfully looks after "Daddy," as she calls him.
Last Sunday, Annie was downstairs surrounded by most of the Browns' six children, seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. They had flocked to the Hamilton Street NW rowhouse from all over the District of Columbia and Maryland to celebrate William and Annie's 72nd wedding anniversary. Laughter and memories flowed along with fruit punch in the late afternoon, so cool for Washington in July.
Love is clearly the tie that binds here, but respect and discipline are dominant threads running through this family's history.
"There've been some rough times and some smooth times, but we always got along," Annie says. "I obeyed my husband, and he obeyed me. We respected each other, and the children respected us."
The "children" - all past 50 - agree. Respect was a word repeated often that afternoon as family members speculated on the key ingredients of their happiness and longevity. Poised, graceful and glowing, the Browns offered a recipe that may well be worth nothing.
"My parents didn't spare the rod," asserts William, the eldest son. Nicknamed Buster from birth, he is trim and handsome at 71, dignified in a light gray suit. "You knew they were the bosses."
They still are, according to sister Evelyn, who at 66 looks in on her parents daily. When Momma or Daddy advises them not to do something, they usually don't.
But now the advice is purely verbal. There was a time when discipline was administered by hand as well. "There was no brutality or anything like that, we just whipped them when they needed whipping," Annie says.
"And they never promised you a whipping you didn't get," says Buster with a laugh.
Lucille, the youngest sister chimes in, "We never had any keys hanging around our necks. Daddy always said 'You don't need any key because you're going to be home long before I go to bed.'"
They meant it, too. Buster recalled his mother looking up and saying to him, "It's 10 o'clock and Doris isn't home yet. Let's go get her."
Of course, chores had to be done before anyone could go anywhere. There were lace curtains to starch and biscuits to bake in the house at 20th and M streets where the children were raised. The house is gone now, but Annie still remembers the joy of walking with the family in the summer evenings after supper and admiring the lamplight shining through her lace curtains.
These were the kind of values Annie Brown brought with her from rural Gainesville, Va., in 1900 when she came to Washington to work as a cook for three sisters. But she learned from Washington, too. Then it was a Washington of horse-drawn carriages and uniformed footmen, a Washington that instilled in her an appreciation for the tablecloths and table manners that she insisted on in her family.
"I told William when he asked me to marry him that if he wanted a family, I wasn't going to work. I didn't want anyone else to raise my children. I wanted them to have my values and not anyone else's," she said.
William agreed, and the family made do on what the native Washingtonian earned as an elevator operator at the Connecticut Apartments. "Those were the kinds of jobs Negroes could get in those days," says Buster, a retired IRS supervisor.
Lucille recalls, "We were very happy. We made bread pudding out of bread, and rice pudding out of rice."
Orderly conversation broke down as the brothers and sister were caught up in the flood of childhood joys that came rushing back. They recalled dancing to the Victrola sister Doris bought on her first job, listening to radio shows on winter evenings, summer Sunday drives to Gainesville, homemade pies, fishing, fighting and laughing together.
Although Annie Brown is dismayed at the current divorce rate, she firmly believes marriages can survive today. She advises couples not to marry too young. (She was 23 and William 25 when they wed.) And above all, she says, "Don't run around. I've seen what that can do. Be faithful."
If she had do to it all over again, would she change anything?
"I would have had more money," she says firmly, twisting a punch glass in her gnarled hands. "We were so poor."
Buster reached for an old family portrait and gently pointed out that if they'd had more money, perhaps they wouldn't have been as happy.
"Yes, that's true. Money doesn't buy happiness," Annie says, studying the picture. "We've had a great life."
". . . a great life," Buster echoes.
Lost for a moment in memory, Annie looked around as if looking for another Buster. She sighed. "They were beautiful children. I wish you could've seen them."
Then, with a few helping hands, she stood up, saying she had to go upstairs to see how Daddy was doing. CAPTION: Picture, Annie Randall Brown, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. By Michael Ford Parks - The Washington Post