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Memories of Sterling Brown.

Nearly fifty years ago, Sterling Brown lived a short distance across the street from the home of my uncle, Dr. James (Jim) Roberts, at 1209 Kearney Street, N.E., in the area called Brookland out beyond Catholic University. Jim Roberts had come down to Howard from the coal patch of Standard Shaft No. 1 of the Henry Clay Frick Company, Pennsylvania, in 1926 and had gone on to Howard Medical School to become a gynecologist and obstetrician. He encouraged his brothers Bob, Henry, and Russell to join him in Washington after World War II, and in 1948 they started the Empire Diaper-Linen Company, a commercial laundry.

Sterling Brown was an ardent supporter of black business, and he helped my family's company win the laundry contract for Howard University's dormitories. Later, in the 1960s, Brown and other Howard professors used to hold seminars for black businessmen at churches and at Howard.

I left a stifling working-class milieu in Detroit on December 15, 1949, to join the family firm, and my uncles paid for my tuition and books to attend Howard night school as part of my compensation. We worked from 6:00 a.m. until we finished, but I was able get to class by 7:00 p.m. and I attended classes in the evening my first two years at Howard.

We delivered laundry in the Brookland area on Saturdays, and it became my privilege to become Sterling Brown's laundryboy or, perhaps, laundry-man - I was 18. I approached him humbly and deferentially, and he received me warmly and gracefully each week as I made my delivery and pick-up. I knew from my Howard experience that he was a Great Man, and my uncles had great respect for him as a person and neighbor. Before long he initiated short conversations about how I was doing at the University.

I don't know whether or not it was his example, but I began trying to write poetry about then, and I shyly told him so one day. He invited me to show him my writings, and I brought him a poem one non-laundry day. His demeanor changed to that of a teacher. He was brutal. He recognized the flabby images I had sought to create by looking out my window across the street one rainy night. He had looked out his window at the same things I had. He told me why I was so maladroit. I had written about "rain failing softly, glisteningly, shimmering in the lamplight," etc. He said my poems lacked strength, directness, and art. I was deflated, and he wasn't smiling when he escorted me to the door.

I seem to have certain masochistic leanings, and so have retained such juvenalia. Last night, I picked up the yellowing sheet of paper with that poem from long ago and looked at it. I now know what he had meant. I changed the lyric to be more concrete and sharp: not to satisfy scrutiny which Sterling cannot give it now, but to satisfy myself. I am no longer ashamed to claim parental responsibility for the poem.

I became close to Sterling Brown in a different enigmatic way when I pledged the Scroller Club of Kappa Alpha Psi in the Spring of 1952. That was a different era, and pledges were required to learn great swatches of poetry - to be declaimed, on demand, to our Kappa elders. Xi Chapter at Howard believed intensely in the concept of a "healthy mind in a healthy body" in those days. Kappa men competed to have the highest Grade Point Averages in the University. Kappa sought to control student government and to be outstanding in all student activities, including athletics. Kappa men dressed well because they liked to do so, as well as to be attractive to the ladies, and they followed a deep-seated Kappa tendency to be champion party givers. I was recruited because I had played basketball in the 1951-1952 season and had become a good student.

Kappa Alpha Psi, in those days, endeavored to convey an image of culture. There were no "Step Shows." Rather, the Scroller Club in the Spring of 1952 put on a dazzling production called Ars Gratia Artis, directed and written by Vassal Marcus, and based on Greek and Roman classicism. The production included dramatic readings, songs, and a classical skit.

In the Fall of 1952, my Club was required to mount a black-inspired production. Led by Club member Harold Banks, a singer, we chose to do a choral setting of the Sterling Brown poem "Strong Men." Banks was one of seven Scrollers who had graduated from the famed Dunbar High School of Washington in 1951. He had performed in such a production in the Acapella Choir in a Spring 1951 Black History Week concert at Dunbar, directed by Hortense Pace, later Director of Music for the District of Columbia school system. Her selection of "Strong Men" had been influenced by the fact that the Sponsor of the Dunbar Class of 1951 was the English teacher Mrs. Elsie Brown Smith, Sterling's sister.

Our presentation was to be part of the annual fall Scroller Club Song Fest, in which all pledges to sororities and fraternities participated in Howard's Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel. The late Phaon Goldman was the producer of the Song Fest and our Kappa mentor for the event. He was assisted by another Kappa mentor, the ebullient German scholar James Bruce, who accompanied us on the Chapel organ. They rehearsed us relentlessly.

One rainy evening I observed Sterling Brown quietly standing in the shadows at the back of the Chapel. I couldn't see his face. I hope he was smiling.

The Scroller Song Fest was a great success. We came on last and brought the house down. Harold Banks was the narrator. We sang the songs and spirituals Brown had indicated in the poem. We couldn't win our own event, of course, but we were known thereafter as the 16 Strong Men. While this brought us some celebrity, we subsequently had to prove how strong we were, repeatedly, in the rites of passage which included paddling.

We met all challenges and were initiated on the evening of December 12, 1952. Figure 1 shows the 16 Strong Men looking tired but resolute in white-tie, with shining shoes, in front of the now demolished Clark Hall. The picture was taken the afternoon of December 12 before one last march across the Long Walk to the Kappa Tree.

From right to left the Strong Men were: Billy Smith, James Pittman, Box Bailey, Carver Leach, Bobby Works, Welch Golightly, Bobby Stewart, Billy Cooper, Charlie Reese, John Saunders, Harold Banks, Don Humphries, Verdise Rollins, Victor Furtado, John Daniels, and myself. Billy Smith, Charlie Reese, Billy Cooper, and John Daniels, all of fond memory, are deceased.

Ronald D. Palmer is Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at George Washington University.
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Author:Palmer, Ronald D.
Publication:African American Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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