Interview with Otis Brown 2004-08-06

Material Information

Interview with Otis Brown 2004-08-06
Otis Brown ( Interviewee )
Paul Ortiz ( Interviewer )
Mississippi Freedom Project (MFP)
Publication Date:
Physical Description:
Oral history interview


Subjects / Keywords:
African Americans ( fast )
Mississippi Delta Freedom Project ( local )
Civil rights movements ( fast )
Voter registration
Oral histories ( lcgft )
Temporal Coverage:
1945 - 2004
Spatial Coverage:
United States of America -- Mississippi


Otis Brown began his involvement at age nineteen in voter registration drives, and efforts to unionize Indianola companies such as lawn mower manufacterer Mortar Line. Brown also talks about his work with the Box Project. Names mentioned include: James Dann, Herschel Kaminsky, Elmo Proctor, Dennis Flannigan, Fannie Lou Hamer, Billy Ray Love, Willie May Smith, Cory Johnson, Lita May Smith, Margaret Kibbee, Cephus Smith, Willie Wright, Stacy White, Zellie Rainey. Locations include: Indianola, Moorhead, Drew, Mound Bayou and Jackson, Mississippi, Holmes County, Leflore County, Grenada County, Washington County and Oxford County, Mississippi as well as Plainville, Connecticut. Organizations include: SNCC, CORE, NAACP, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the Sunflower County Improvement Association.

Record Information

Source Institution:
UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Holding Location:
UF Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Rights Management:
Made available under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 4.0 International license:
Resource Identifier:
MFP 004B Otis Brown 8-6-2004 ( SPOHP IDENTIFIER )


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The Foundation for The Gator Nation An Equal Opportunity Institution Samuel Proctor Oral History Program College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Program Director : Dr. Paul Ortiz 241 Pugh Hall Technology Coordinator : Deborah Hendrix PO Box 115215 Gainesville, FL 32611 352 392 7168 352 846 1983 Fax The Samuel Proctor O ral History Program (SPOHP) was founded by Dr. Samuel Proctor at the University of Florida in 1967. Its original projects were collections centered around Florida history with the purpose of preserving eyewitness accounts of economic, social, political, re ligious and intellectual life in Florida and the South. In the 45 years since its inception, SPOHP has collected over 5,000 interviews in its archives. Transcribed interviews are available through SPOHP for use by research scholars, students, journalists and other interested groups. Material is frequently used for theses, dissertations, articles, books, documentaries, museum displays, and a variety of other public uses. As standard oral history practice dictates, SPOHP recommends that researchers refer t o both the transcript and audio of an interview when conducting their work. A selection of interviews are available online here through the UF Digital Collections and the UF Smathers Library system. Oral history interview t ranscripts available on the UF D igital Collections may be in draft or final format. SPOHP transcribers create interview transcripts by listen ing to the ori ginal oral history interview recording and typing a verbatim d ocument of it. The transcript is written with careful attention to refl ect original grammar and word choice of each interviewee; s ubjective or editorial changes are not made to their speech. The draft trans cript can also later undergo a later final edit to ensure accuracy in spelling and format I nterviewees can also provide their own spelli ng corrections SPOHP transcribers refer to the Merriam program specific transcribing style guide, accessible For more information about SPOHP, visit http://oral.histor or call the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program office at 352 392 7168. October 2013


MFP 004B Interviewee: Otis Brown Interviewer: Paul Ortiz Date: August 6, 2004 O: Mr. Brown, can you just begin by stating your full name and address? B My name is Otis Brown Junior. I now live at 70 Webster St reet, Plainville, Connecticut b O: And can you tell me about your community? When you were growing up, Mr. Brown, what kind of community it was? B It was a normal Southern community, black on one side, white on the other side a nd blacks, I guess could be teachers and preachers. T hat was it or to be a field worker. O: Okay, and what about your family? What kind of work did your family do? B Well my father was self employed. He sold peanuts, hot tamales, and snowballs. And he worked in a grain elevator for the insurance. I had eleven brother s and sisters and I growed up on Grey Street. I think my family still own the house on Grey Street b ut now they live on Cox Street. O: Okay. Had your family always lived in Indianola? B Yes, yes, yes. My mother was bor n here. I think my grandmother too. My father, he did not originate here. He came from the northern border state, near the Tennessee border. I think Desoto some place up there. O: Okay. Mr. Brown, when you were growing up, did you h ave much of a chance to talk to your grandparents? B: Oh, yes. I talked to my grandmother, yes. My other grandmother a nd two grandfathers were dead b ut my grandmother, yes. She died in nineteen eigh ty something. She was ninety three when she died.


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 2 O: Did she tell you about her experiences when she was growing up? B Yeah, she told me some things. O: Okay. Mr. Brown, when you were growing up, what was the first time you re member, maybe your parents or you your first encounter with segregation? B Ju st before I went to school cause I used to play with this white kid. They lived maybe a third of a mile from me and his relatives came to visit him why they began to get hostile towards me Black, you might say I was about five just going on six. O: What year were you born Mr. Brown? B : 1945, August the third. O: Okay. S o around the time of 1950, you were five or so, you st arted seeing what was happening in terms of rac e relations B : Right, right. O: Okay. B Abo u t five, I bega n to understand, yes. O: About five, okay. Did your parents do things to try to shield the children or protect them from ? B : No. Not my fami ly. N o. O: Okay. What did they do? What was their B They tell it like it is. Like my mother now, tell it like it is. My father would always do what you want to do. She always did have a positive attitude b ut my father, he came from a plantation setting come from plantation


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 3 setting T wo d ifferent type of lifestyle s ee cause my mother growed up in her own home. O: So that made a big difference. B : wo countries at once, t wo different worlds. But my father took religion very sincerely. M y mother took it as a business. O: Okay, so what would your mother tell you about something like race relations? B comment that much, just always say, stand up for your rights. say yes s uh or no suh b mother Mother we called her her name tradition al like the other people I was brought up even If I have to give my parents my money. I put it in my own pocket. So I was brought up completely different from everyone else. I had the upp er foot compared with the other people. O: Okay. Mr. Brown, can you tell me about the community beyond your immediate family ? Who were the people that you remember as being important in your community as you were growing up? B: Well he workers from Dillon F uneral H ome. They might be un important but I look a t these people and I just say I wanted to be like them. I learned from them. I learned how t hey had to manipulate, to play Uncle Tom, to play the middle road and m more ope n and outgoing. Anyone hung about the color thing. But I tell you


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 4 doors so . O: And so your philosophy really came from your parents? B : Yeah, my mother right My father would always say, work hard. My mother say, work smart. Okay. O: I see, you had two different B : O: Okay. Mr. Brown, the street that you grew up in said. B: Grey Street. It was about two blocks fro m here. Two and a half blocks here, on but everything so like run down now. The park not there no more, they done let it grow not maintaining it just like they Dillon area. They make good money on it. The streets on Grey Street, if you take a look at it, they run down. My mother live out in the other better neighborhood now, Cox Street. They moved out there in 1969. O: Mr. Brown, just for the Street was all black. B: All black, right. Most of the parent s kids were raised by their grandparents or their mothers. They are very few men on the street. O: And in turns of the pattern of segre gation, when you were g rowi ng up as you grew to become a teenager what was the difference in turns of segregation?


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 5 B: The railroad track normally separate the black from the white. You might had a few strag glers live on one side or the other side. Once there was a lot of blacks living on the other side but by the [19]50s they start moving a ll the blacks on this so called white side on black side But now. It went back like it used to be. When I first was growing up, they had a lot of black on the white side of town. They were like mixed and then that changed in the [19]50s when immigration began to take place. O: [19]50s there was a new attempt to segregate people. B: Right. Separate the black from the white, right. O: Residential? B: Right. O: And since one side of the tracks would be white B: so I guess. I guess. O: Mr. Brown, can you tell me about when you first B: O: Otis, can you tell me when you first became aware of the c ivil rights m ovement ? B: 1964. I was coming home one day from mowing yards. I always been a hustler, I m ade my own money on the sideline b ut when I got involved in the C ivil r ight m ovement, I would have ten thousand dollars in the bank account. So, you know, I was just completely different. Jim Da nn was in the group James Dan n he was in the group The other fellow his name George something ll come to me later. I s een him


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 6 trying to get people instant voting. They was shut ting their doors and pulling their to feel guil t y. I say let me get involved. C ivil rights m ause ays be that certain group who gonna make it. See, my father was self employed and we had strong self esteem. All you got my family and the other families. We have self esteem. make it either way. because I me my values changed. O: In 1964, you saw people registering to vote. What made you decide to get involved? B: I explained that earlier. I felt guilty. People shutting their doors, they listen to an outsider. So I figured, some local get involve d, could encourage some of come register to vote. I figured it was my responsibility W hundred miles, thirteen hundred mi les away here, trying to get people to come register to vote. I figured even thou gh I was nineteen at the time, I should probably help people come register to vote too. O: Right. What kind of importance did you see in 1964 in terms of trying to get peop le to register to vote? B: be better job, better school, o pen up the public library Cause that time, the public libr ary was just for whites. A handfu l of certain black people you might say.


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 7 O: You mentioned schooling. W hat kinds of educational opportunities were open to black students? B: Very little. Like I say before, b e a preacher or a teacher or be a regular day worker. Lawyers, even in that time in Mississippi, there were very few lawyers because it hard to get a licens e and it was hard to get a case. There were very few lawyers period. That hey left Mississip pi, they went to other states, l awyers and doctors. O: What were some of your first experiences when you first got involved in th e movement? B: Resistant. Just like in anything else. People resist or afraid. They were afraid that they go and become a registered voter and lose their job or their home may be because I got three square mea ls a day O: Being that that was the case, how would you talk to people or encourage people to get beyond their fears? B: I w ould tell b out becoming a registered voter. M aybe we can change things, that time most of the streets in Indianola were not paved. They had sewer T open the opportunity up for their kid, their kid will be better. cotton. They could get a job in an office or a factory or maybe they could do something else. Be engineer, doctor, or lawyer. I said, they both have something to do with your income.


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 8 O: So you were stressing the ties between politics and economics? B: O: As the movement unfolded in Indianola, how did it change people locally? B: It s et the so called upper class black, the educa ted teacher, and the preachers against the lower class and it gave some people hope. Some people may lost their job in the process. People got fired f rom Morton, Ludlow because they trying to organize. O: Okay, now I definitely want to hear about the union because you were saying that, in some sense, it set educated folks how did that happen? B: W hat now? O: You were saying that it set educated B: Oh okay, yeah an d under the system. T he way i ome were fired if they try to participate and trying to get people to come register to vote. You know Deborah there, her mother a good example. When she went down to come register to a and he can interpret himself. Yet, still, cause when her mother appeal her case, I had got kicked out of school at the time because I tried to organize a boycott We want ed to better the facility where we went to high school but we had a chemical lab but not equipment and stuff.


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 9 O: Okay, so you were in the school at that time? B: Yes. O: Teaching or ? B: I was working I was going to school because we had a new assistant here. When I began, blacks had to go big primer or little primer, then first, second, and third. to restrict black to complete high school. Then about two years later, they stayed at the courtroom with me with the big primer, little primer they began first grade a dubious force trying to hold black from getti ng their high school education they figure something, piece of paper to piece of paper. O: ? B: every year when school turn out, the y put special bus s es straight from here to Chicago. People left here when they got out of school and went to Chicago and went to work or St. Louis o r wherever else they relatives, Massachusetts or wherever. O: And you mentioned earlier Otis, about the attempts to organize a union. Can you tell me about th at? B: Okay. We began with Mortar Line and then we worked with Lewis That was Hers c hel Kaminsky and he worked with Elmo and Fl annigan T hose the two I can think of. There were other people. O: What kind of companies were those?


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 10 B: Morta r Line make lawn mowers. They a union now, MT D called Mo r tar Line Production, MTD Head quarters in Ohio, I believe. They known worldw ide. You had Lewis now called Super V alu O: And so when did the attempt i t sounds to me like there was a connection between the civil right movement and B: Right ause we had different people doing different things. By 1965 I think I was in charge. By 1965, July or September, I was in charge of the whole county so I became the coordinator for the county. O: And what was the organization called? B: We were called SN C C, we were called the Freedom Democrat Party A nd then by 1966 I found my own group, Sunflower County Improvement Association O: And so it was in [19] 65 B: Yes, S N C O: So it was through SNCC that the attempt to organize the union came about? Would that be fair to say or is that ? B: Yes. SNCC was a little bit more around back than the NAACP. In the beginning it s CORE and then we all broke off because we all had different agendas. O: But CORE was the first group? B: CORE where they try to unite all civil rights groups. O: Was tha t co CORE? B: CORE, CORE, c o r e. O: Then you mentioned Missi ssippi Freedom Democratic Party


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 11 B: Right. Definitely. They s eek to delegate. Mississippi Delegate. O: Now I understand that was pretty strong here. Sounds to me like B: Yes. Sunf lower County was pretty strong. You had Fannie Lou Hamer up in Louisville. You had Cora Flemming here. You had who else you had? Off the top of my head there was just two people. Cora from Indianola, she dead. Fannie Lou Hamer from Sunf lower, she dead. There was other people, off the O: What kind of impact did that ? B: It gave people hope there was progress we made. Some probably did change ause some peop le got pay raise. Some people got a better opportunity because the local white try to buy them out you might say. It did change somewhat. People started getting better wages, yes, because we star t ed encouraging people to ask for more money when they work in people homes and stuff. O: Like domestic work? B: Yeah, domestic work right. Most of the people that came to me did domestic work and most of the people were womens. Y ou had very few mens. Y ou look among the black community, it always been the women, the backbone of the community. process. O: Mr. Brown if you thought about your involvement in the movement, how did it change you over time? Say before and after.


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 12 B: Oh it changed my viewpoint because at first I was going to stay here and open a grocery store and a hotel. did it want to deal with that nickel dime stuff P lus o I went north, went to school, worked, raised m still in the N orth. O: [Laughter] What has been your primary occupation or your ? B: Oh [inaudible]. [Laughter] I worked for Stanley Work ause they sold us all but we still can be Stanley Work. You know how the big conglomerates they buy and sell. Well anyway I work in the steel mill division. I had worked for Ford di vision before I left, b ecause at Stanley W ork we had different divisions B ut now they are separating all that, each division on its own. I worked for the hardware at first T hen I went to steel scrapping. I went to steel CMP. s when Stanley Work sold us. You had to S ee Stanley Work paid our check for just abo ut four years. They paid our pay. the shipping depar tment. I deal with the computer stuff and tell them the process. O: Well as you know, today movement. If you were talking to an audience of young people, say middle school students, what would be the things you would try to emphasize to them about the movement? B: stress that where they can go in


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 13 the difference. I would show them pictures of black and white fountains and the coat house in certain public buildings. I would stress that black live in one side, white they should keep going because race relations i keep it up, the bad bacteria going to take over the good bacteria. In other words, for granted. Freedom is Try to get rid of this mini war and look at a person as a individual work and ty to work with that premise, you know. Try to have a better rela tionship with the other race tha n we did our generation. I would say that. Try to reach out, try to learn about other culture. Take more vacation like I do, you know. I take five vacation a year or so. See the world can say A nd try to do their best in scho ol else because where you make a A here, a A might be a C where I live in Connecticut because the school here more inferior. The y may say they great but they just not the same period. bologna qualified people. People exposed to more than one culture. I live in a multi culture society where I live. So tha


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 14 O: If you could sum everything up about before the movement and after the movement, what has changed in the black community and what has been the things that have not changed? B: really. Instead of u use a pencil. White exploiting white, white exploiting black. People too materialistic nowa days. They forgot their roots. Instead of buying a Chevy and getting where you want go, they want to buy a Mercedes. Instead of buying a three bedroom, they buy a six bedroom. Instead of getting involved with the kid In a we going back to the f ormer You see more. All I see is materialism. Like this town, it used to be a much better town. You might had raggedy shack but it was much cleaner. You might had raggedy shack but people paint um up, they wo uld fix up better. Now people got anymore, black or white. I always say to take pride, take pride in your town, take pride in your school, take pride in your church if you believe in G od. Take pride in one another. Give a helping hand every day. Always try to help someone every day and maybe it might be a better world And I would say another thing. A lot of people just say stay away from drugs, I would explain, t ell why to stay away from drugs. tism. Slaves exists today more than they did in 1800s, 1700s because people


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 15 slavery ti sm. I would tell that to the black and the white kid. There are more slaves today than there were in the 1800. S o O: B: Not off top off of my head because what I was going to say, I changed my mind. There a lot of things that I could talk about but my viewpoint left than some people. Some people more center. very in any group, you got a lot of people talk, only two or thr ee going to do the work. So s the way it work. O: Well I know one more question I was going to ask you. You had mentioned earlier, CORE, but then you had mentioned how you had helped start a group called the Sunflower B: Sunflower County Improvem ent Association. We got a state charter and everything. O: Okay and now who was that chartered through? B: It was the state, s tate of Mississippi. because after I so it fell apart. O: What were the initial aim s of the B: To improve Sunflower County. I tied people in with The Box Project which is in my town, Plainville, Connecticu t, where a person up north colo r, white, black, blue, or gray ; m ost of them are wh ite but you had some black too w the south and I live the north and you had ki ds and you just above poverty so I would help you buy certain things for your kids and write letters and stuff to try to


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 16 encourage your kids. Sometime I may come visit you or have your kid c ome visit me. Sometime The Box P roject do that. The Box Project h elp some people build homes. It helps some kids complete college. It open up a new world to some people. The Box Project probably help, today, about three thousand people. We located in Plainville Connecticut. We began in 1964. O: Now, it began here. B: No it began in Canada and then Pat August took it from a man I should know. the panel anyway. Pat August is the one who made it grow in the United States. But Pat dead, she died a couple years ago. She the one organized in Plainville, Connecticut. She work out of her home until they got a n altar We volunteer, matching the poor family with a middle class family or upper class family. I went around here and g athered families her e in Sunflower County. Not Sunflower but I went to Holmes County, Leflore County, Grenada County, Washington County, Oxford County. We even did people in Arkansas. I got white family discriminate. We got some white famil ies. Some resisted but a few whites that got on The Box Project too were poor. to do with it. Your kids need opportunity so we had some white but I say 90% of the families are black. Also, you have some Indian family Indians on the reservation, Minnesota. Think maybe a coupl e [inaudible] up with T O: So, with the Sunflower County Improvement Association, that was one thing that you d id


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 17 B: Oh, another thing I could mention is that we had a program with literary, teaching people how to read and write. We helped people get social security, the ir food aff ord. We taking people to Memphis, Tennessee. To Jackson, to the doctor, and the hospital and stuff or Mound Bayou We just deal with trying to help people improve their condition. We did voter registration. O: And how many people were involved in that organization? B: W years ago. O: That was mainly local people? B: Yeah. I was the president of the organization. Willie May Smith was the Vice President. Cory Johnson was on th e board, Lita May Smith. I can think of some of the people I think Giles. They had Giles on the Sunflower board, not a Giles in Indianola. You had a couple of other people here and there. They wer e scattered. You had people in Moor head. We tried to people from think of her name either. We had people that just about represent every town on the board. O: You would meet B: Once a month. We had a staff. Our main staff a t the time was Margaret Kibbee, K i b b e e She works for the legal defense and legal aid in Greensville still. She from California. She been here ever s ince, Margaret Kibbee, K i b b e e She live in Green ville. She here today too. Cephus Smith Cephus real name, he got a first name that I forgot but he live in Ruleville. He left, went to the military,


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 18 went to California, now he came back here. You had Willie Wright, he dead. These the people we are the ones who did the work. We had a couple of other people who came in off but we had people who came down during the summer and help out too. O: From Connecticut? B: No, from other states. Connecticut, Illinois, Washington, we had a pretty good mixed group. We had m ore blacks to get in the county when we had the Sunflower County program. At first, most people were white. Then we had blacks coming in too. I think we eventually had one O riental that came here also. We had a few people going to law school who came and helped out. O: So it sounds like the Improvement Association made a big difference. B: Yeah we did. We made some difference and then we split off too. Some went to after rehabilitating went to NAACP and other stuff. through on i t you know. Volunteers, a lot of time, felt stressful and a lot of cause all I got was criticism about certain things being done when I got here but when I asked people what you wanna do, I got no response. Yeah I live in Connecticut and I went around seeing peoples in other state to mak e sure they got here. I visits e m. I had my own car, own expense and they ask ed me about other stuff. I just to ld them off. I said, hey there are people who gonna need a pla ce to stay, you willing to put so close it. What we doing today, We d of us got


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 19 together and we did it and most of us paid for it out of our own pocket just to get people together. Like they gonna serve up meals tonight, no pay or nothing. either. The thing yesterday, no one paid for that. Now I see some five dollar t know what that was for. I guess we did run short a few things. But so I reached for my pocket again, took care of the sodas or water. Somebody else take care of the s andwich Three of the us really chip in and did the most like Zellie and Stacy Stacy supposed to been the coordinator here but the other people doing the job. Stacy wound up doing the job. I told her what was gonna happen. Zellie took care of the public relations like you and the other and my job to go to reach the outsider worker who here before. Stacy and I did most of the contact. Sometimes Zellie would call me an. I come and try to convince e I vi sit e ight people in California and out of e ight, seven of them is here today. O: What is the goal of the reunion? B: See what can we those of us who can contribute what can we do for the community. How can we bring hope and life back to the new generation? How can we edu cate them with what we done ause anything about what we done. the purpose, to educate. Maybe we can get together, make grants and stuff, get the money to have a YMCA here, who knows. Anything, we just puttin g our heads together. We brainstorming, you call


MFP 004B; Brown; Page 20 it? The f easibility to study, whatever you wanna call it. We just gonna put our the purpose here, trying to see who want to participate and how much they can help and what they can do. Just trying to get different people with different expertise here who can help with certain things. O: between the history of the movement B: Yeah, every single movement. We can pick up where we left off from and educate and so on. A nd maybe the next generation can carry o n because we gonna be dead in a few years. We all getting old now. O: Well B: That O: Inaudible ] B: welcome. Transcribed by: Raina Shipmann Spring 2014 Audit edited by: Sarah Blanc Spring 2014 Final edited by: Diana Dombrowski, March 15, 2014