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Chapter Two— Lewis and Minnie
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Chapter Two—
Lewis and Minnie

Brown was so unusual. He could wait on seventy-five people without any problems. He learned their names.
Art Turk
Mineola restaurant owner,
remembering Willie Brown's father

A series of black and white photographs were taken in 1936 to mark Mineola's contribution to the Texas Centennial of that year.[1] Most of the cards are unremarkable snapshots, but among them are the only known photographs of Al's Place, the restaurant where Willie Brown's father, Lewis Brown, once worked as a waiter. Even more remarkable, two of the postcards show Lewis Brown.

The postcards picture Art Turk, who ran the place, and all the employees lined up in front of the brick roadhouse. Behind them is a sign advertising Southern Select Beer, the low-alcohol brew of the day. Watery beer was all that was legal in Wood County. The whites in the picture are lined up on the left, the blacks on the right. Everyone looks wooden, terribly unsure of what they are supposed to be doing for the camera. One waiter holds a tray, with his arm stiffly on his waist. Everyone looks awkward; that is, everyone except Lewis Brown. He is striking a pose by holding a tray with two beer bottles on it. In one postcard Lewis holds his tray with his body turned to his left in a walking pose as if he is bringing a beer to your table. In the other postcard he is striking a formal pose, standing rigidly at attention, his tray at shoulder-height. In both pictures Lewis Brown is wearing spotless white shoes, white pants, a white duck jacket, and a white cap. He is sharp, the only person, white


or black, in the postcards exhibiting any sense of elegance or showmanship. He is the only one who looks as if he knows exactly what he is doing. Lewis Brown may not have been around much for his young son, but his influence on him is unmistakable.

"Brown was so unusual," said Art Turk, the former restaurant owner, remembering his best waiter four decades later. "He could wait on seventy-five people without any problems. He learned their names."

A year before his death, Lewis Brown talked about his life and the day the photographs for the postcards were taken.[2] He said he clearly remembered holding his tray that day fifty-seven years earlier. "I wanted to have something in my hand to show I was a waiter," he said, visibly delighted to see copies of the postcards after so many years. As he scanned them, he pointed out "Seecut" Williams, an old friend, now dead, who was the restaurant's cook. Williams, whose nickname came from mumbling the words, "See the cook," lived next door to the Collins household, where Lewis's children were growing up.[3] Lewis Brown was still mentally sharp when he was interviewed, and his pride in his son showed. But there was pain in his voice as well, and it was not easy for him to hide it.

Willie Brown has spoken little of his father, saying only that Lewis Brown abandoned him in childhood.[4] The subject of his father is one of those few that make the hardened politician visibly uncomfortable. His father, after all, was not much of a father. He left town when young Willie was about four or five. Even when Lewis was in town, he did not have much to do with his children. It has become a part of the legend and lore of Willie Brown that he is the "son of a railroad porter," as if the profession of railroad porter could excuse his father for his absence from Willie Brown's life. However, not the least of the difficulties with the legend is that Brown's father was a waiter, not a railroad porter. He did not work for a railroad until long after he had left Mineola and his children, and then only briefly. The real story is a good deal more telling about the origins of Willie Brown's talent and character than the legend.

Brown inherited his father's intellect, his gift for remembering names in an instant, and his sense of elegance. Willie Brown's relationship with his father not only influenced his psychological character but also helped shape his view of public policy. CNN journalist Judy Woodruff once asked whether the lack of fathers in welfare-dependent households was the root cause of poverty. "I grew up in a single-[parent] home without a father," he replied during a televised interview. "I'm not sure that I was disadvantaged."[5]

The underlying suggestion left in such exchanges is that Willie Brown owed nothing to his father and scarcely knew anything about him. However, Willie Brown was considerably more familiar with his father than he let on in public. Their relationship was complex, enigmatic, and illuminating about his political talents, his attitude about family and marriage, and his defensiveness on some political issues that strike close to home.


Brown's father was born in Mineola on December 22, 1908, and he was named Willie Lewis Brown Jr.[6]His father, the first Willie Lewis Brown, was a railroad worker who was forty when his son was born. The first Willie Brown was born in Louisiana, probably in 1868, three years after the Civil War. "I have part of his name, but they gave me his middle name. I was mostly known as Lewis Brown. They didn't call me 'Willie.'"[7]

Lewis Brown's mother, Ella Roberts—the politician's grandmother—was born in Smith County, Texas, in 1862, during the Civil War, and may well have been born a slave. They had three girls and Lewis. Little else is known about either of Willie Brown's paternal grandparents. Lewis Brown never really knew his father, who died when Lewis was about ten. Lewis lived with his mother until he left Mineola as an adult.

Those who knew Lewis Brown as a young man remembered him for an extraordinary memory for names and details. Lewis Brown knew everyone, white and black, and a good deal about everything and everyone in Mineola. "In those days you didn't have to meet people officially like we do now. You just know 'em when they're born," he said.

His daughters firmly believe that those talents were inherited by his son in abundance. "Willie is outgoing. My dad is like that—quick, snappy," said Lovia Brown Boyd, one of his daughters.[8] Lewis Brown, she declared, "snaps like Willie, features and all. Willie is just like him, the way he talks when you listen to both of them."

Standing just over six feet tall, Lewis Brown was larger and more muscular than his son, whose small physique he inherited from his slightly built mother. But in their faces there was no mistaking the relationship of father and son. Both had a high forehead and flaring nostrils. Their eyes could instantly flash from mischievous warmth to furious ice. Most striking of all, father and son possessed huge smiles, making those they met feel instantly comfortable. They could make a person laugh at their jokes even when they were not particularly funny.

As a young man, Lewis Brown wanted to go to college and become a doctor, but in those years Negroes in Mineola were barred from going past the tenth grade. Lewis left town to pursue his education in Marshall, Texas, and to live with an uncle who flourished selling land to blacks. Lewis enrolled in a college preparatory program at a local black college, and he received a high school diploma, a considerable accomplishment for his day. But his uncle's fortunes collapsed, and, Lewis said, he was "run out of town" by whites envious of his previous good fortune. After his uncle moved to Mexico, Lewis returned to Mineola, probably in 1925 or 1926.

Lewis got a job as a porter at the Bailey Hotel, a boxy three-story red brick building just south of the railroad station on the edge of the "colored side" of Mineola. At the Bailey a traveling salesman could get a bed for a few


dollars, and a woman for a few more dollars. The Bailey Hotel paid Lewis $4 for working seven days a week. If he wanted a day off, Lewis had to pay a substitute.

"I knew how to make extra money. See, I would sell a little whiskey to the patrons, and I had girls who would come down and work like what they call prostitutes now. What the girl would do is give me $1 and she'd keep $2 for herself. So if a man come in and ask me, 'Say, can you get me a girl?' I'd say, 'Sure, I can get you one.' I would make extra money in that line—money to shoot dice with and everything. I'd make $15 to $20 a week." He made four or five times his regular wages by pimping.

Lewis Brown worked at the Bailey for several years. But by the early 1930s Brown found a better job at Al's Place, waiting tables and earning $10 a week plus tips. Working as a waiter was also a step up in status from carrying suitcases and arranging for call girls. Al's catered to traveling oil workers and to the better-off whites of Mineola. It was a modern roadhouse, complete with a drive-in designed for the new age of motorists. Around back, Al's rented small bungalows to motorists for the night. Years later, the highway was relocated and the restaurant was torn down, but until then Al's was the best place in town.[9]

Al's was run by a family from Minnesota, the Turks, who brought a small measure of racial progress to Mineola. Blacks were not served in the dining room of any restaurant in Mineola, Al's not excepted. At most, blacks could get a meal in the kitchen. But the Turks took a step forward, serving Negroes in their cars at the outdoor drive-in just like whites. The Turks not only served blacks but also hired them for more than just menial labor. The Turks trusted black employees in every job in the restaurant, including those involving money, and considered their employees part of their family.

"I'd punch the cash register like anybody else," Lewis Brown recalled. "[Whites] said, 'Lookit—they got a nigger in there running the cash register.' They'd say, 'You niggers have it good here, don't you?' 'Yeah, we do all right, we do okay'—that's all we said."

A half-century later, Al's nephew, Art Turk, said there was no question that Lewis Brown was the smartest waiter the place ever had. "He was always so polite. He could take all them orders and get 'em right," Turk observed. Of all the waiters who had come and gone over the years, Lewis Brown still stood out in Art Turk's mind for how well he treated customers.[10] "I don't know where he'd get their names—but he would," Turk continued. "And he would hang their coats up for them, and when they got done eating, he would take that coat and brush it whether there was anything on it or not. And his tips were so much better. Back then, ten cents or a quarter was a usual tip. But he never got less than bills. And they wouldn't let anybody but Brown wait on them."

Among the stories told about Lewis is that he once brought finger bowls to the table for patrons eating fried chicken, but they drank out of the


bowls—to the muffled chuckles of everyone who worked at Al's.[11] Lewis Brown knew what to do with a finger bowl even if the white people did not.

Each day, Lewis Brown wore a fresh white shirt, a dark bow tie, and a white duck jacket. He polished his distinctive white shoes before going to work and was careful in keeping mud off them on his walk to the restaurant. "I wanted it all to match," Lewis recalled. Clothes and names, he said, were important—fine points his politician son also embraced.

In his off-hours Lewis went "up the hill" to Itsie and Son's Shack. He had known the Collins family, including Itsie's and Son's sister, Minnie Collins, since childhood.[12] Lewis was a year older than Minnie, but the two were not particularly close growing up. She was a party girl; she loved to go to dances and enjoyed the company of boys. He had serious ambitions and moved away to go to school. While he was away, Minnie Collins became pregnant and was forced to marry in 1926. Her brief marriage to Roy Tuck ended at roughly the time Lewis returned to Mineola. When Lewis returned, with his solid physique, dashing style, and sense of humor, he proved irresistible to Minnie, and they were soon enjoying a sexual relationship.

Lewis lived on Wells Street, a block away from Minnie. It was easy enough for him to slip out of his mother's house and cross an open field to see Minnie, who lived on Baker Street with her mother, Anna Lee. Lewis eventually fathered three children with Minnie. But the two never married, and they never lived together under the same roof. For Lewis Brown it was still an uncomfortable subject nearly sixty years later. He said that Minnie's mother, Anna Lee, did not approve of him. She wanted him to stay out of her domain. "She didn't care for me too much. She was kind of a tough customer, anyway."

Minnie and Lewis Brown stood little chance of setting up their own household during the Great Depression. In Mineola black grandmothers commonly raised their grandchildren, sending their grown daughters off to find work as maids or cooks on the white side of town or in Dallas. Sons lived with their mothers and were expected to find jobs that brought the household income. According to the 1940 census, two-thirds of Wood County's Negro women over the age of fourteen were domestic workers. Two-thirds of the black men worked on farms or in farm-related jobs.[13] Like other young black women her age, Minnie Collins was sent by her mother to work as a maid for a Mineola white family. She was paid $3 a week and brought the money home. "We were always working, we always had a nice house to live in," Minnie once told an interviewer.[14] "But I was happy I left. I enjoyed the time I lived here, but wouldn't go back."

The grandmother-centered extended family was, in fact, the common family structure for African Americans throughout the South, a structure with its roots in slavery.[15] Black families were periodically broken up by slave owners, and a slave could expect to be sold at least once in his or her lifetime. Rearing children became the job of the full slave community—mothers and


fathers when available, but mostly grandmothers and older uncles, aunts, and neighbors. The offspring of such unions were not stigmatized. The basic family structure lived on through segregation, proving a practical method for rearing children in a farm-based economy in which working-age black adults commonly needed to leave home to find work. That Lewis Brown did not marry and stayed away from his children was not unusual. But though his general lack of engagement with his children was typical for his time, his absence nonetheless formed the basis of a lingering resentment for the child who most resembled him in appearance, intellect, and temperament: Willie Brown.

Lewis Brown was exceptional in ways that his son did not fully appreciate. He held what for a man was a rare service-sector job in a rural economy, giving him more familiar contact with whites than most of his black contemporaries. His respect among whites may even have created a window of tolerance among them for his precocious son, although the son was probably unaware of it. And Lewis was involved with his children to some extent.

"We would see him not often," his daughter Gwendolyn recalled.[16] "But at Christmas time—the only thing I remember him giving us—he would always give the girls fabric material that you have dresses made [of], and he would give Willie a shirt. He didn't make any contribution toward our lives as such, financially or physically. It was just really Minnie and my grandmother and my uncles."

The children had pet names for their mother and grandmother: "Ma Minnie" and "Ma Dear," but like everyone else they addressed their father as "Lewis."

As the economy collapsed around them in the Depression, jobs for blacks became scarcer. Blacks began leaving Texas and the rest of the South, and Lewis Brown became a part of that exodus. In his view there was nothing holding him in Mineola.[17] Anna Lee would not allow him much participation in the upbringing of his children, driving wedges between him and Minnie. He saw little future in Mineola beyond waiting tables in a declining town. Even his employer believed he could do better, and deservedly. "He was so much better than [to] be in Mineola. He should have been in a bigger town," said Art Turk years later.[18]

Lewis Brown went to Los Angeles at the invitation of his sister Idora, who told him he could earn better money there. He was later unsure of the year, but he most likely left Mineola for good in 1937 or early 1938, when Willie Brown was about four years old.[19] Within a year of Lewis leaving Mineola, Willie Brown's mother also left town to work for white families in Dallas as a maid, earning $15 a week. Her reasons for leaving are not entirely clear. Her daughters maintain that the family needed the extra money and that she could earn more in Dallas, all of which was true. But it was also likely that once Minnie and Lewis broke up, Minnie felt the need to leave, too. Minnie was never to live in Mineola again, though she would make brief weekly


trips home. As an adult, Willie Brown has kept submerged whatever psychic scars he must bear from both parents abandoning him before he even started school. His mother, at least, returned to Mineola to see her children. Lewis never did.

Minnie Collins lived "in service," as it was called, with the families for whom she worked in Dallas. She wore a uniform that was freshly pressed each day, and she lived in servants' quarters in the back of the house. She earned the loyalty of the white families for whom she worked, some of whom came to her funeral decades later.

In her weekly trips home, Minnie always brought part of her earnings to her mother along with presents for her children. But it was not long before Minnie was involved with a new suitor in Dallas, and she became pregnant for the fifth and final time. She gave birth to James Walton, her last child, in January 1939 in Dallas. Soon after, Minnie sent her newest baby back to her mother in Mineola. Her mother reared all of her children.[20]

Meanwhile, Lewis Brown lived for a time with his sister and her husband in Los Angeles, finding work as a waiter at a Hollywood drive-in. However, he did not get the same respect he had gotten as a waiter at the best restaurant in Mineola, Texas. He then became a porter on a Pullman railroad car, considered just about the best job a Negro could get at the time.[21] Porters could earn up to $810 a month plus tips, a salary as high as that of many black doctors.[22] But he did not care for the extended travel, and the hours were long. The average porter worked a minimum of three hundred hours a month. After two years of riding the rails, Lewis quit.

At the outbreak of World War II, Lewis Brown enlisted in the still-segregated Army (and got a birth certificate in the process), and he spent the war at a camp near El Paso. Anna Lee tried to garnishee his wages for child support. The Army rejected her appeal, although he claimed he was willing to comply. By then he was married to a woman in Los Angeles, and she was not pleased by the potential loss of her soldier's income. Lewis found himself caught between two strong-willed women, and his children were the losers. Anna Lee blamed Lewis for not caring for his children, he later said, and the bitterness remained for years.[23] Willie Brown himself was never fully aware of the conflict between his grandmother and his father, but the conflict played a role in his settling in San Francisco rather than Los Angeles.

After the war Lewis got a job in a stove foundry in Los Angeles, from which he eventually retired. He had a reputation as something of a gambler, and he kept in touch with his old friend, Itsie Collins, in San Francisco.[24] Lewis Brown lived out his final years in poor health in a convalescent home in Huntington Park, in Southern California. In 1994, at the age of eighty-four and a year before his death, he recounted in an interview the events of his life as best as he could remember them. Some details were fuzzy, others sharp. Although physically frail at the time, he did not fatigue mentally. He sat in a wheelchair, asking the author to push him around the


hospital and out into a courtyard. He occasionally interrupted his tale to flirt with the nurses. He called them his "girlfriends."

Lewis Brown's pension was quietly supplemented by his politician son. He was hurt by the stories of estrangement from Willie Brown, and was anxious to prove that his son cared about him no matter what journalists wrote. To prove it, Lewis pulled from a bedside drawer envelopes with a return address of Willie Brown's law office in San Francisco. Checks came in those envelopes, he said. Even so, his son rarely visited.

Administrators at the convalescent home were protective of Lewis Brown's privacy and screened his visitors at the behest of the Speaker of the California State Assembly. They had standing instructions to shield Lewis from media inquiries. But few reporters knew he was even alive, let alone where to find him. Brown also had one of his closest political associates, Congresswoman Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, keep tabs on his father. Interviewed in her Washington, D.C., office, she warmly described Lewis as "my friend." When Lewis was healthier, Waters took him to political fund-raisers so that he could hear his son speak.[25] Lewis lived in her district, and she helped father and son stay connected. As with many of Brown's friends, especially those closest to him, the line between a personal and a political favor did not exist.

Lewis Brown died peacefully[26] on January 23, 1994. In contrast with his mother's death a year earlier, Willie Brown staged no public ceremony. Lewis Brown was laid to rest quietly.


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