Interviewee: Abraham Robert Brown
Interviewer: Alan Petigny
Date: April 5, 1993
P: Once again your name.
B: My name is Abraham Brown.
P: What do you do now?
B: Well, right now I am retired from the school system, but I am the founder and
CEO of Prison Crusade Ministry, and in addition to that, I have served as
interim paster of First Baptist Church, College Hill.
P: That being in the church in the projects?
B: That is the church, it is right down the street, really, on Twenty-ninth street. We
are on twenty-ninth street and it is about eight or nine blocks down the street.
P: Tell me a little bit first about your background. What did your folks do, when
were you born.
B: I was born in 1927, March 18th. I was born in a section of Tampa that was
known then as Harrison Alley, there were many parts of the city that were called
alleys because actually that was where people lived and I actually lived in what
they called an alley. It was known as Harrison Alley, that was a pretty tough
place from what I have been told. As I grew up I knew it to be tough. I had
moved out when I knew, you know, the kind of place it was. And I was born
here, went to school here, graduated from Middleton High School in 1946, went
from there to college, graduated from Florida A & M University in 1950, came
back and started teaching and coaching.
B: Football, and basketball.
B: Middleton [High School, I presume], I started out really at Don Thompson
[School?]. I worked for two years there.
P: That was a high school, right?
B: That was a high school, right. [I] worked two years there and then I went to
Middleton where I worked until 1966 as an assistant coach, and left there and
became head coach at Blake High School when Coach Williams went to coach
on a college level, and I stayed at Blake until it was closed as a high school in
1971. Then, I became head coach at Jefferson [High School?] where I coached
for two years. That made twenty-three years of coaching and I figured then it
was time for me to get out of coaching. So, then I became dean at Chamberlain
High School, I had gone back to college, gotten my master's degree in
administration and supervision.
P: USF [University of South Florida]?
B: No, Florida A & M University. Then I went to Chamberlain High School where I
was dean for fifteen years. Now, the position became assistant principal later,
but it was all the same thing. So, I put in thirty-eight years in the school system
here. Now, while I was at Chamberlain High School as a dean, I picked up the
paper one Sunday morning and read where one of my ex-football players had
killed a cab driver in a robbery. And then while standing there with that paper in
my hand, I realized that I had taught this young man how to play football, but
failed to teach him how to live. So, then I went down to the county jail to try to
do, perhaps, what I had failed to do on the football field. When I got to the county
jail, I discovered that there was several other young men there, some I knew and
some that knew me. And so I started to work there and it has grown to what it is
now. Now, we have, I believe, one of the largest prison ministries, not only in the
state of Florida, but in the South. So, Prison Crusade Ministries was born, I
would say, at the county jail right in Hillsborough County.
P: That is interesting. You said, you know, growing up, moving back some
decades, what did your folks do again? Your mom?
B: My mother was just an ordinary person. She worked as a housekeeper. Many
black women worked as housekeepers then. In fact, to be honest with you, I
recall when it was difficult for a man to find a job. My dad used to leave home
every morning with a lunch bucket going to look for work, and would come back
without work. So, in many instances, the women were the only ones that were
P: Was this during the depression?
B: This was during the depression, right.
P: Where did your father end up working, ultimately?
B: Okay, later during the depression, President Roosevelt came up with a
government program that was known as the WPA, Work Progress
Administration. There were others, the CC camps for youth, and the NRA, but
the WPA is what really revolutionized our lifestyle. My dad got a job making
$17.20 every two weeks, which does not sound like much now, but that was like
a monument back in those days. That really restored dignity and brought a
regular job to our home. See, we owned our own home, but even with owning
our own home, we were still living far below poverty. But, nobody complained. It
was accepted and we were not the only ones. But, the WPA, truly, turned the
P: Some of the prominent black men in Tampa when you were in your twenties in
the 1950s, the late 1940s and early 1950s, people who come to mind are Dewey
Richardson and the editor of the Sentinel, C. Andrews and Perry Harvey,
the father of the current city councilman.
B: And there was several others too, as I recall. There was Wats Anderson, I did
not see his name on your list, he owned a nightclub on Central, but he was a
prominent citizen in the community. There was ...
P: Lee Davis
B: Lee Davis, who had a place right across the street from him. There was Kid
Mason and then there were those that were funeral home directors, and there
was Pughsley Funeral Home and there was ...
B: Yeah, Edward Stone, and there was the man out of west Tampa ...
P: Was not Williams.
B: Was not Williams--Ray Williams--actually it was one block off of Central in those
days. Well, all of your undertakers were prominent people of course.
P: Teachers, would they be [prominent]?
B: Certainly, I think some of the most distinguished leaders in our community were
teachers. There were teachers that were just landmarks that did a tremendous
job of developing the kind of leaders that you see in our community today, and
certainly they should not be left out as prominent citizens.
P: Now, these prominent people, the reason I have their addresses down is, I was
looking at where they lived and who their neighbors were. As I am examining the
question, whether the prominent members of the black community in the 1950s,
whether they were different from prominent professional blacks today in that
whether there was more interaction between the so-called black elite and
ordinary working black folks. Looking back, do these prominent black people, did
they interact a good deal with individuals who were not as wealthy as
themselves, or as established as themselves.
B: Well, sure. The mode of living in those days was a lot different from what it is
now. It has been the practice of blacks now, when they become prominent, that
they move out of the community. Because of what has happened to our
communities. I think those blacks living in the community have to keep it decent
and have to keep it liveable and help to make it a decent place to live. But, you
know, when you stop subtracting from a community and never add, in the right
way, pretty soon that community would deteriorate, and that is what has
happened to our community.
P: Can I ask you to elaborate that point again about what has happened to our
community in terms of it deteriorating.
B: I think, what we call success, is when we are able to move out of the
environment that exists in our community today. Certainly, I guess you can mark
its success, but as far as the community, I think it is the worst thing that could
happen. Because the only thing that is left in the community are senior citizens
that are not capable for fending for themselves and then of course the people
that cannot afford to move any other place, and usually they are the ones that
have less control over their children and so actually, it becomes just a real
terrible place to try to live and rear children. Now, back in those days, we sort of
all of us were in the same basket and so we maintained some system of decency
even though we were poor. So, I learned from experience that a poor community
can be a decent community. That is difficult to say today, and it is because crime
and the bullies, and those that take advantage of situations, there is nobody
really to stand up to these people. Therefore, the whole community deteriorates.
P: Are you saying, though, that because a lot of these prominent black people--
teachers, funeral home directors, doctors, the handful of attorneys, businessmen,
ministers--because they live in the community side-by-side people of less means,
they were able to hold-at-bay some of those negative elements that we see with
B: Not only hold-at-bay, they were able to upgrade the community. You see, what
they did, they upgraded their homes, even. And so the homes around you, if you
are living in a community and the people around you seem to be striving to
upgrade their homes, it makes even the little man make a genuine effort to
upgrade himself and his home also. So, when the homes around you begin to
take on a new face, as these people began to grow in stature and financially, it
sort of upgraded the entire community. Because, you see, they could not live in
the white communities like they do now. They were not accepted, [it] never came
up in their minds to move out because there was no place to go. So, what you
started doing was improving the environments around you. And so, our
communities got better, by and large. As the economy got better, our
communities got better because there was no place for us to go.
P: What happened where that is no longer the case?
B: Well, I think integration had a great deal to do with that. When people found out
that they could move to Carrolwood [I know this is a nice neighborhood on the
north side of Tampa, I don't know about Town and Country though I don't know
how to spell it correctly] and the they could move to Town and Country even,
they could move to other places. When the guy that had a restaurant in the black
community, when people found out that they did not have to eat at this restaurant
in the black community, that they could now eat at Red Lobster. It was like an
exodus leaving these black business going to these restaurants down on Dale
Mabry where we never dreamed that we would be able to sit and eat and sip
cocktails, and so forth. And it changed our communities.
P: I do not mean to rush you.
[Break in the tape]
B: I am not so sure. See, integration has been good, but on the other hand, it has
taken away a lot of things that we had that were good for us that we did not
realize that we had until we lost.
P: Like what?
B: Okay. Like our own community. The Cubans live in their own community, the
Spanish, in west Tampa you have the Italians, and they develop their community.
But, in our community when integration came, instead of really developing our
communities, we left. We went for things that are bigger, and now we live in
Carrolwood, and I am not against that. But, we stopped building our own
communities. [Are you] finding me?
B: We lost your businesses, how many businesses do they own in those
communities? How many jobs have they created for your own community? You
follow me now? Wherein, if we had developed these communities that we had,
that would be more jobs, there would be better living condition, because we
would not tolerate the things that take place in the communities that are taking
place now. You follow me now? But, when we left, then they just deteriorated.
As a result, people used to dress up and they did not go to town, they went to
twenty-second street, because on twenty-second street you could get a meal,
you could get your shoes fixed, you could get anything you wanted in your own
community. Now, the only businesses that are really doing well in our community
that are owned by black people are beauty parlors and undertakers. Now, those
are the two thriving businesses in our community. And that does not leave very
much room for entrepreneurship for those of us from the black community,
unless we compete at the malls and the other places. You follow me now? I
hold that there is another money exchange in our community, that Mom and Pop
stores, and these other places that have always developed job opportunities for
people in our community. In fact, America is seeing right now, the real
opportunity lies in small businesses. That is where the jobs are, because when
you get into the big corporations the first thing they do is try to see how they can
save money. Therefore, they have less labor, more mechanisms, and more
computers, and etc, and less help. Therefore you are laying people off instead of
P: When I was speaking to you when the tape was off, I was telling you how my
research has so far shown that a lot of these prominent black people were living
side-by-side ordinary decent working folks, but not accomplished from the
standpoint of being financially accomplished and so forth, and professionals and
so forth. You said to me, "That is not a bad thing." You do not think that was a
B: I do not think it was a bad thing at all, because I think it was good for all of us.
You see, I think a good example of this is in the classrooms. When they take all
of the honor students and the students that are supposed to be academically
prepared--gifted--they take those gifted children, put them all in one class and
then what it amounts to is the low-performing students seem to end up in one
class. They lose the value of inter-change, and they lose the value of the
environment that they need to do better. If you are a pool shooter and you want
to improve, you play pool with people that are better than you are, and it will
improve your game of pool. If you are a golfer, if you want to improve your golf,
you shoot golf with guys that are better. Well, I think when you isolate these
people, put them all in the one room, good for them, but it is not good for them
that are around them. Sure it is good for them, but those that are less talented,
those that have less ability, when seem to help each other. I think that we have
found out that even on your college level, when students get any opportunity to
have students that are achieving on a high level to come back and help the lower
achieving students, there seems to be a better line of communication with these
students dealing with each other. For instance, if I had a child and I wanted to
hire some tutoring help, instead of getting a professional, I would like to get
another student, somebody on that same level that they can better communicate.
Well, we were all on the same level as far as society was concerned, we were all
black. But, there were those of us that had more talent, and more to offer. We
seemed to feel responsibility to reach back and help those that we felt that were
less qualified, that had less abilities. So, I think we were good for each other.
But, as things are now, success means that you move out. And you are
supposed to give your kids a better chance, that may be true, but it is not good
for the whole. It is not as good as it was when we were all living in one
community and reaching out. I think it even made the people that were less
achievers, it challenged them to do better.
P: I want to probe that point a little bit more. It is one thing, and I think it is valuable
to see as I can show that these people are more educated, __ blacks were
living with the wider community. I guess my question though is, in what ways
were they interacting with the wider community? In other words, were these
people considered leaders of the community? As a boy, did you see the minister
and the doctors, and so forth, did you see these people as leaders of the
B: Yes sir. Yes sir. You see we were all in the same fraternity. We would discuss,
in my fraternity we kept discussing going back and reaching back and
remembering those that were less fortunate, that seemed to be a part of your
success. When I went off to college, to Florida A & M University, instructors
would close the door and close the books and say to those of us that were there,
particularly the male, there were not very many black men that were going to
college, and they would say to us that were in college, "When you graduate, you
have a responsibility to go back to your community and reach back for those that
were less fortunate." And I felt compelled to do that, because it was a struggle
for all of us at that time. Now, since that time, since we have become integrated,
we have lost that caring commission that was given to us--was given to me,
rather--when I went to college. Kids that go to college now, they do not get that
kind of commission. But, that was instilled within me. I had a responsibility to
come back home.
P: Now, this sense of responsibility, caring, that you felt that you had, as a boy
before you went to college, did these prominent elites, did they have the same
sense as well.
B: Yes sir. They were our scout leaders, they were our road monitors, they were
some deacons in the churches, but you knew they were there. The school
teacher was there. If you went to school dirty, the school teacher would call you
off to the side and tell you that you, even though your clothes [were poor], you
did not have to come to school dirty. And she would comb your hair. She kept a
comb at the school.
B: Oh yes indeed, yes indeed.
P: Do you remember a teacher keeping a
B: Oh yes, she kept a comb at school for kids that came to school, and the boys
particularly that did not comb their hair. She would call them in the room, and
boy you would much rather have combed your hair yourself than have her comb.
P: Would she embarrass them?
B: No, it would not embarrass you, she would take you in the back, in the room.
P: What was her name? Do you remember this lady's name?
B: Oh that was several teachers, that was not just one teacher.
P: If you give me a few of the names it will good in terms of the article.
B: Elsie Turner, that was a common practice.
[Break in tape]
P: What I am looking at, what I am looking for, are linkages. Not simply being able
to say they lived in the community, I think that says a lot, because if they lived in
the community, if their homes are there, they have a bigger stake in the way the
B: But that was part of my college training. Now, when you go to an integrated
school, you see, the young who are going to integrated schools they are not
going to get that. Because, that is not a part of the responsibility of the school
itself. See, the Florida A & M and other black colleges and universities, they
knew they had a role to play. It was an overall picture that college had a
tremendous responsibility to each community to send people back that could
make a contribution, that could become leaders and not just achieve and reach
for themselves, but they owed something to those that were less fortunate.
P: What I want to ask you is if you can remember other examples like you just told
me about teachers who would comb your hair ...
B: Or make you brush your teeth.
B: Yes, indeed.
P: How old would these kids be?
B: They would be from elementary right on up. So, if a teacher was a fifth grade
teacher or a sixth grade teacher, third grade teacher, you would get this. Now,
by the time you got to junior high school, somewhere you would have learned
this if you intended, you know, you follow me now. You see, even then there
were mothers that were less caring or responsible.
P: Were there a lot of unwed mothers at that time?
B: Not as many as now.
P: Was there a social stigma to unwed motherhood at the time?
B: Not really. No, because we all lived in the same neighborhood. We all lived in
the same houses. In fact, to be honest with you, I recall when I thought it was a
move up to live in the housing project because they were nice warm homes. The
housing projects were far better than many of the houses that we were living in at
the time. It created a fraternity, an area where people would go to the projects
because that is where the crowd was.
P: Could you think of any of those examples besides the teacher, an example of a
business man reaching out and providing an example, an inspiration for younger
B: Doctors would take students, take fellows that they felt like would be potential
doctors, they would visit the schools, and (I do not know how they would find out)
they seemed to find people that they felt had some potential and they would
motivate them. A friend of my whose uncle was a doctor, he went to school to be
a dentist because he was motivated by his uncle.
P: Do you specifically remember businessmen coming into your school and
speaking to you.
B: Not so much of coming into the schools as they do now, because the teachers
did a lot of that. But, you could go by and sit down and talk to these men. They
seemed to enjoy sitting down around you and giving you some guidance. They
attended the football games, and they picked out kids that seemed to show some
future promises and they seemed to put a hand on you. You felt good about
being this man saying to you, "Son, you got something going for you."
That was motivating.
P: Can you think of a specific example or anecdote that can flesh that out?
B: Well, to be honest with you, there was so many. This also happened with boys
that attended the Catholic schools. One of the advantages of attending the
Catholic schools were the fact that these white instructors and these white
teachers had access to opportunities. They would seem to motivate students
that had abilities, to achieve. They not only had the opportunity, but they had the
contacts that many of the black teachers did not have. They would touch bases
with some of these other areas and could make it possible for you to go to
another Catholic school. For instance, there were those that went to Xavier
University. Now, Xavier in New Orleans was a black college, but it was
Catholic. So, those people that wanted to be a pharmacist, there was no place
for you to be a pharmacist at Florida A & M University, and they did not have one
at Bethune-Cookman and you could not go to University of Florida, you could
not attend Florida State University. So, if you wanted to be a pharmacist in the
south, you had to go to Xavier, which was a black college in New Orleans that
was a Catholic University. But, look at the field of pharmacy. So, for a long time,
pharmacy was a field that was not open to black people. Now, today a
pharmacist starts off at $40,000 a year. What do you think would have happened
if these opportunities would have been made available at Florida A & M
University. Let me give you another illustration of what I am talking about. I
graduated from Middleton High School, never saw a track meet in my life, of
course we did not have a track team. We did not have a track team because we
did not have a track. We did not have a swimming pool. Let me go beyond that.
I graduated from Florida A & M University without ever seeing a track meet
because we did not have a track at Florida A & M University. Now they have got
one, they were building one when I left. Are you listening? We did not have a
swimming pool, in Florida without a swimming pool, so you could not have
swimming teams. You did not have a golf course. Now Florida A & M has a
nine-hole golf course. But, what I am saying, these are the areas [that most
people take classes in for physical education and] I graduated in physical
education without ever seeing a track meet, without ever seeing a swim meet, so
how in the world could I come back to this community and teach all of the things
in recreation and athletics that our kids needed to know. I could teach football
and I could teach basketball and that was about it. You follow me now? When I
graduated from Middleton, we did not have a baseball team, we had no place to
play baseball. So, what I am saying is that integration has been good and at the
same time integration caused us to lose our high schools. I do not think that was
good because I think a high school plays an important role in a community.
There are three basic fundamentals of a community: the school, the church, and
the home. When you take away the school, and particularly a high school, it
takes a lot away from the community. When those school were closed, when the
two black high schools (I say today they would be two good high schools in the
black community), when those school were taken out of the community it took a
lot out of the community.
P: I assume that you were pretty critical of the mayor's plan that was defeated, but
she wanted to reopen Blake on the waterfront instead of putting it in the black
B: No, I was not, to be honest with you, I was so glad to see that door open to get a
high school again. Where they built it was not really important to me. I am
mature enough to know what it was for the community to be without your high
school. I think both school should be restored. Why do you think they have not
closed down Hillsborough [High School] or Plant [High School]? Because,
you see those schools mean a lot to the community and the graduates and the
people from that community will never allow them to close those schools. You
see? We should feel the same way in the black community. Now, I am not by
any means saying that integration has been bad. I am just saying that in this
endeavor we lost some good things that we had.
P: I want to go back to what I am really trying to get at. I was able to get some
really good things, like the example of the teacher combing hair. That showed
the kind of caring by these educators, at least, that you do not see so much these
B: You do not see it at all.
P: Can you think of other example like that growing up in black Tampa?
B: Yes, for instance, a teacher would not let you walk in her classroom with your hat
on your head. Today, it does not make any difference. She was teaching you
respect, it was discipline being taught. You see, you cannot discipline yourself if
nobody helps you to discipline yourself.
P: Outside of teachers, can you think of positive roles others play?
B: Yes. In the community? The neighbors would help if a working mother was
working and she had to leave her children home, she could not take them to work
with her. The neighbor next door who was not working would watch out for her
children for her. They were actually supporting the parents that were not
working, even though they were not paid. It was sort of an assumed
P: I think that is a good example, but I am thinking--that could be a poor neighbor,
that could be a rich neighbor--I am specifically thinking of ways that the elite, that
the school teachers, the funeral directors, the doctors and other professionals,
successful businessmen, the way they reached out and filled that task that you
were given when you were at Florida A & M.
B: Let me give you another example that these elite people, what they did. A
woman, let us say the wife of this person, would take a couple of girls and bring
them into her home and they would be amazed at the furniture and the
environment and they would be motivated to live and so achieve that one day
they could have the same kind of house.
P: That would have happened a lot?
B: Oh yes indeed. They would bring them over and they would maybe, she would
run errands with her. She would take her with her shopping. She would
probably do some cleaning, but it was a good exchange. Just for this young girl
from a poor city to be in the environment. Let me give you an example of some
women that did that: Dr. Smith and his wife Natalie Smith. These women were
responsible for many young ladies going to college.
P: Dr. Smith the older surgeon?
B: Dr. Smith, the dentist, he is retired now. But, his wife and many of the doctors
and other professionals, they motivated us to want to go to college.
B: They motivated us to want to go to college, because our parents could not do it.
Our parents did not go to college, so how could you get the proper motivation in
a home where nobody in your home even finished high school?
P: I do not know, how?
B: But, you see that is where these people living in the community, you would see
their homes. You would walk by this house every day going to your house. And
you would say, "Boy, when I grow up, that is the kind of home I am going to
have." And you would see their cars and you would see their lifestyle, and a few
that would get a chance to go in and enjoy the environment of that home by just
doing little things. So fraternities and sororities played a major role in those days.
B: Oh yes, indeed.
P: Like alumni?
B: Yes, alumni, fraternity, yes.
P: What would they do?
B: They had programs. You take the links now, you see it does not mean very
much now, but in those days that was the only window of society that young
people like us saw. See, now you can go downtown to the performing arts now.
We could not go to a place like that. So, the only window for those in the black
community to see these kind of things would be the kind of things that these
fraternities would put on. Let me just share this with you.
P: What kind of things?
B: A fraternity dance, that is an invitational dance.
P: Was that only for fraternity member?
B: No. But, they selected people out of the community to attend. So, you kind of
wanted to live and achieve to the point where you could get invited to these
P: They did not invite everyone?
B: No sir.
P: Who would they invite?
B: People that they thought that would be the kind of people that should be there.
So Joe Blow or anybody did not get invited. Now Joe Blow, if he wanted to go to
a dance, he went to B.B. King and other places. But, these were invitational
P: Would they send this to adults or to young people?
B: No, I am talking about adults now, these are for adults. This was a social class.
They developed a social class within the community, you follow me now? But, it
was good for the entire community, because the kids got a chance to know what
was going on and they so wanted to achieve one day that they would be able to
go to these fraternity dances. Not just the local dances when some band would
come to town, but you know, if you worked hard enough, when you went off to
college your first year when you came back, you were invited to go to these
P: Can you think of what these dances were?
B: The Black and White ball, right now the Kappa's ball, right now the old Meager's
had a dance, the Delta Sweetheart's ball.
P: Were those going on in the 1950s too?
B: Oh yes, oh indeed. I mean, not only going on, they were prominent.
P: More prominent than today?
B: Oh yes indeed. They are declining today because so many other avenues are
open. You see, you and your wife now can go to a motel and spend the
weekend in a motel and have the same setting that anybody else [has]. But, we
did not have that. The only real enjoyable times were provided by those in the
community. Because, they would be at these invited functions. You know,
invitational, private sort of functions. And it created a step ladder effect.
Everybody was trying to so adjust themselves so that they could move up the
ladder because they saw it all around them.
P: So they did form a social class, the elite.
B: Yes they did.
P: But, they are at the same time a member of the responsible [class].
B: They reached back and they helped those that were less fortunate, in a much
P: As a young boy, if you saw a doctor or a principal or a teacher on the street or a
dentist or a funeral parlor director did you make sure that you were on your best
behavior? Did you respect them?
B: Oh yes, and I tried to conduct myself professionally like he did. For me to earn
the fact that he would point me out and say, "How are you doing, Abe?" that
made me feel good, that let me know that I was moving up. Because my parents
were extremely poor. The only reason I went to college was because I could
play football. Had it not been for football, I never would have gone to college,
and so these are windows and these are doors. I clearly remember when I
graduated from high school, there was a professional man that came to me and
told me that he had been able to get a scholarship for me.
P: Who is this then?
B: I cannot remember now, but I will think of it. But, he came to me. I was going to
run a shoe shine parlor, that was the only that was left for me.
P: He called A & M on your behalf and intervened on your behalf?
B: No, he got me out to Xavier. I went to Xavier. He knew the guy. See, I went to
college right after the war, in 1946, and a lot of these coaches came back from
the war. This guy had been to college and he had been in World War II, he got
the head job at Xavier University. So, he needed some players. A lot of your
black colleges were beginning to bloom now.