By Tonya Jameson
Robert Brown isn’t a witness to history. He is a shaper of history, and you’ve probably never heard of the High Point native.
There is no other way to describe a man who raised money for Martin Luther King Jr., and went with Coretta Scott King to pick up his body. Brown visited Nelson Mandela in prison, was an aide to President Richard Nixon and helped implement key national minority initiatives. Brown founded a public relations firm that guided corporations through race relations during the Civil Rights Movement and later apartheid in South Africa.
He’s been living under our noses in High Point since the 1960s.
“He’s not a man who just talks, and he’s very quiet about it,” says longtime friend Dr. Ron Carter, president of Johnson C. Smith University. “Once he’s done it, he is at peace. Even if you don’t recognize him. If you don’t say thank you, he’ll say, ‘It needed to be done. It ought to have been done. And I did it.’ ”
In September, North Carolina did say thank you. Brown received the N.C. North Carolina Award for Public Service, the state’s highest honor. The award was long overdue.
“Mr. Brown is a man of the shadows,” says Brown’s friend Osyris Uqoezwa, president of Brown’s B&C International consulting firm. “He’s been a major part of history, but you would never know it. He’s not braggadocios.”
Brown’s story began in poverty in High Point. His grandmother, Nellie Marshall Brown, raised him. Her father was a slave in Anson County. She instilled a deep sense of faith and commitment to helping the community in Brown when he was a boy.
They didn’t have much, but Brown says she shared what they did have. He remembers her cooking a big pot of beans and a large pan of corn bread. She would feed her family, and then tell Brown and his brother to take plates to elderly neighbors and shut-ins. He called his grandmother Momma, and she shaped Brown’s life. He in turn shaped history.
His grandmother used to tell him that life isn’t about money, houses or cars. It’s about serving and giving.
“At the end of the day, when you meet your maker, all the Lord wants to know is how much good did you do with what I gave you?” Brown says. “Whether I gave you a little or lot, what did you do?
Brown has done a lot. He dropped out of college at N.C. A&T to become a policeman in High Point in the ’50s. Needless to say, it wasn’t easy being a black cop in a segregated city. He couldn’t even eat at some restaurants or drink from the “white” water fountain at Woolworth’s. Brown went on to become a federal agent in New York in the 1960s. Yet, it still bothered him that blacks were being treated harshly in his hometown and throughout the South.
“I love North Carolina. It’s my home,” he told his supervisor. “I’m going back there where I can help do something about that, where everybody can go in restaurants and get jobs. Everybody can’t run away. I decided I wasn’t going to run. This is my state.”
From North Carolina, Brown would touch the world. He started the public relations firm B&C Associates. Companies such as F.W. Woolworth Corporation, A&P Supermarkets, Wrangler, Sara Lee, SC Johnson and Kimberly-Clark contracted B&C to handle corporate communications and race relations during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Today, B&C International is a management consulting firm specializing in race relations issues, diversity inclusion and community engagement. Brown is the CEO.
He has a knack for making connections. He uses his gift to fight for equality from inside, in boardrooms and private meetings. It was inevitable that Brown would cross paths with Martin Luther King Jr. Brown helped raise money for King. He became such close friends with the King family that he accompanied Coretta Scott King to pick up her husband’s body the day after he was assassinated.
Brown’s career would eventually lead him to politics. He worked with John and Robert Kennedy’s campaigns. He later worked as a special assistant to President Richard Nixon. Brown was instrumental in implementing the U.S. Minority Enterprise Program and initiating the U.S. Government Black College Program under Nixon.
“A lot of these programs for HBCUs, a lot of these things that Nixon started, were under Brown’s leadership,” says former city councilman David Howard. “This is the debt that we owe him and don’t even know about.”
Funny thing is, sitting in his High Point home, Brown is slow to talk about his place in history. He is quick, however, to talk about homemade syrup for pancakes or the multitude of ways he can broil chicken. His home is filled with African art, as well as photos of him with everyone from President Nixon to Oprah Winfrey.
There are plaques, awards, keys to cities and other mementoes scattered on shelves and mantels. Framed photos adorn the walls of the upstairs hallway. In them, Brown is pictured with celebrities and leaders of nation. Sometimes Brown is pictured with one of his wives, the late Sallie, his current wife Lavern, or his late grandmother. In many of them, Brown is alone, because the shots are candid photos of him working.
Brown doesn’t linger on the photo walls. In fact, he points the way upstairs and lets visitors ogle alone. He will talk more eagerly about his pantry.
“You don’t want to see that,” he says with a sly grin.
He opens the door this other trophy room, on the side of his open kitchen. It’s as big as a powder room, and stacked from floor to ceiling with all kinds of spices and snacks. He has diabetes, but you wouldn’t know it from his collection of sweets and munchies. He’s on a self-devised diet. His philosophy is that he can eat anything he wants as long as it has less than 10 grams of sugar, the amount in a cup of milk.
At 81, Brown doesn’t travel much anymore. He exercises routinely, and parks far from entrances to force himself to walk more.
“Exercise is extremely valuable, especially when you get older,” he says.
He travels to Alexandria, Va., where his wife, Lavern, lives part-time. His first wife, Sallie, died in the early 2000s after battling cancer for 15 years. Brown’s 28-year-old son Evan lives in Atlanta.
Along with exercising his body, Brown is a voracious reader. He consumes anywhere from six to 12 newspapers a day. He falls asleep most night around 1 a.m. with a stack of papers on his chest.
“I never catch up. I just get on top of that and try to finish what’s crucial to finish,” he explains.
His day starts as early as 5 a.m., since many of his clients are in different time zones around the world. Brown remains active on several boards, but he talks most proudly about High Point University. The school has been named as one of the top universities in the South by U.S. News and World Report.
Brown also remains committed to the International BookSmart Foundation, which he started in 1988. The foundation ships books to Africa to stock or start libraries. Brown’s passion for helping South Africa eventually landed him an audience with Nelson Mandela, while Mandela was in prison. Brown would go on to help Mandela’s family prepare his home upon his release from prison. Brown also worked with JCSU’s Carter, then a dean at Boston University, to help Mandela’s children attend college there.
Brown has an unabashed fervor for life. As long the “good Lord” gives him health and opportunity, he says he’s going to keep working. His grandmother’s words still push him. He in turn pushes others.
He tells young people, “Find out what you can do to help somebody else. Make our country a better country, make our city a better city…Find out what you can do. Find out how you can help the poor, and all of these people that are less fortunate. Then go on and do it.”
It’s advice that can help older adults, as well. It’s a philosophy that could change the world, one neighborhood at a time.