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Transcript of full Rembert Brown interview

My name is Rembert H. Brown. The H stands for Hale. I was born in a little place called Smokes, South Carolina, on October 20, 1921.

The situation that existed when I was a youngster dictated my life, really. My father became ill, he had a stroke in 1933, when I was between 11 and 12 years old. Because we were living on a farm, someone had to keep the farm going in order to keep the home we were living in. So I had to partially drop out of school in March 1933 to run this farm in order for my mother and sisters and brothers living at home on the time would have a place to stay. And while working on the farm, it gave me plenty of time to think and plan. I planned firstly my entire life before I was 15 years old. Basically I wanted to have a home for my mother and sisters and brothers so we wouldn't have to depend upon running a farm to live.

The situation is pretty grave as far as we were concerned at the time. We were in the midst of the greatest Depression this country has ever known, and I was without a father, because he died when I was 11 years old. So I had no choice but become a grown man at 11. But I didn't feel that the way we were going was a way of life. My thought was to get in a position where I could better myself and my family. And extend this to what I could do for others as well. So all of my life has been centered around helping other people while trying to help myself and my family. And that followed me throughout my years in the service.

When I went into the service, we had two armies, as it was. We had the black Army and we had the others. Well, that didn't set well with me. So every effort that I could muster was aimed at changing that situation. The situation in the military service is a little different. On the outside, you could just about do and say anything you want, but you couldn't do that in the service. First off, you would get accused of being insubordinate. I went into the general's office and started sounding off as some of these civil rights movement people were doing, well I'd wind up in the stockade, there's no question. But I had to walk a tightrope between trying to get a change in the service, in the social attitudes of the Army, and at the same time stay out of trouble. In fact, on one occasion I did get in trouble because I wrote a message and sent it to the Pentagon [that] was critical of what was going on in my outfit.

Three days later, my commanding general of the First Cavalry division called me in and said, "You've been insubordinate. You've written a critical report that got to the Pentagon and you didn't run it through me."

Well, I said, "I gave it to the major, he was supposed to be the person who approved it."

"No, we didn't see the report at all," [the general said.] And now they're down on me,"

I was given an administrative admonition. That's the only punishment I received in my 20 years in the service. What that did to me, because that went into my records, I missed one promotion that I would have gotten. And that followed me for the rest of my time in the service. But all of this stems from the fact that I was trying to help the men in the service who were being taken advantage of, and they had nobody to speak up for them. So I took the burden of speaking up, particularly [for] the enlisted men in my outfit.

It turns out that the people in Washington finally got the point from my message, and they changed regulations that accomplished what I was trying to accomplish by sending this message. After that, I went after the Pentagon, this time legally, about other things that were happening. Particularly to the enlisted personnel. This is why I'm saying I wasn't just a civil rights worker, I was a human rights worker. Because in the service, you really don't have the opportunity to confront people who are doing you disfavors. But I was bold enough to do it, knowing that I could get in trouble by doing so. So in 1946, I had my first chance to do something constructive in that field without getting punished.

We had four personnel departments on one post. Three of them were black battalions, and one was a white battalion. That was the headquarters battalion. Whenever we had a new regulation or something to do that was complicated, I was called up to headquarters to explain it to the other people who were working in this field. Time and time again, post personnel officer would call me: "Rembert, would you come up, we have a new regulation, and I want you to explain this to the other clerks and the people we have here."

So one day, while there, I spoke to him tongue in cheek. I said, "Why do you keep calling me up here to explain the regulations?" Because this is really his job to do this. But I was known on that post as being the top personnel specialist on the post.

And he said, "Because you know more about this than I do, I'm going to be honest."

I said, "If that's the case, then why don't we move the four personnel offices here in this building and work together? In other words, instead of having four different personnel offices, we'd have one personnel office and you would be the one in charge. (He was also a warrant officer.) You'd be the one in charge and we would split these men up in such a way that we would have them in each segment of the personnel department."

He said, "Well that's a good idea, but I don't think the colonel would buy it because we have no integration within the Army right now."

"So well, why don't you try it at least?" [I asked.]

About an hour later, he called me and said, "Guess what? I spoke to the colonel about your idea, integrating the personnel department. And he said, 'I wonder why I hadn't thought about it before.'"

That was the first positive reaction to my efforts to integrate the Army. I can't forget the date. It was the sixth day of November, 1946. That was two years before President Truman at the time passed down an order to the armed services that from that point on, all personnel would be assigned according to their abilities and not according to who they were. So that I think, I can't prove this, but I think this was the first American unit in Japan, in the Far East, that was integrated.

This happened in 1946, and from that point on things moved very fast. We had other outfits that came to us. Even General MacArthur's headquarters sent a representative to our outfit to find out how this was going. Because everyone had the mistaken belief that whites and blacks cannot work together with blacks being in a supervisory capacity. I'm being very frank. That was the basic reason for the separation. They said, "Well, white soldiers are not going to take orders from blacks." Well, I said, "Give us a chance and I can prove you wrong."

We divided the personnel department into different segments. I was in charge of paying allowances and personnel action. We had another black sergeant who was in charge of enlisted records. We had another one who was in charge of officers' records. And we picked the best clerks from those four battalions and moved them into each one of our divisions. We had no problem whatsoever because I had picked good men, men that I knew knew their jobs, and I made it plain that they were going to work together and not fight each other.

To this day, I have never had one problem as far as whites and blacks or any other working under me. They did their job, did it so well, our commanding general from the Eighth Army, which was our major headquarters at the time, sent letters out to our post and they were so pleased with things that they encouraged other outfits to do the same thing.

So I would say my major accomplishment in the way, if you're going to put it in civil rights, is getting the Army integrated. We at that time had officers who could not even eat in the officers' mess hall. In other words, they had a separate mess hall even for the officers. And that just really burned me to know here are these men, out there, they're giving their lives, and they can't even eat in the mess hall with the rest of the officers. Well, all that changed after that. There was no fanfare, anything else. It just calmly changed. There's no record made of it. Because the officers who were over me, they wanted to take credit for a lot of the things that I was doing. So there was never any big write-up about it whatsoever. But in two years, we had completely integrated that post. At the time, men were living in separate barracks, but eventually that was done away with. For eight of my 20 years in the service, I was an enlisted man. In fact, I was a master sergeant. I took it upon myself then to help the enlisted personnel particularly, who I felt were not getting a proper shake. There are many men in and out of the service now who got their promotions because of me.

All this time I was concentrated in trying to get a fair shake for those servicemen who were not getting a fair shake. Technically was out of the field of civil rights, but I was working for human rights.

When I saw what [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] went through for the benefit of others, even to be killed, then there was no question, I knew anything I did could never equal or live up to what Dr. King had produced. See, I was never a rabble rouser, never a marcher marching up and down the street because I always felt you do not accomplish anything walking down the street and yelling and carrying on as many of the civil rights persons were doing. I felt you do the right thing, do it properly, somebody will notice. I'm very fortunate in that sense, that personally, I've had no ill effect except that one time when I was charged by my own commanding general for going out of channel.

Getting back to the time I was punished for sending this message to the Pentagon, I knew I could be punished. Just about everything I've done has been with a certain amount of fear. But it didn't stop me from doing what I wanted to do.

My proudest moment is when the commanding officer in Tokyo accepted my suggestion that we integrate the clerks in our personnel department. That was a sore point with me to begin with, and when he agreed to it, I considered that was my proudest moment. Because everything from that point on was kind of downhill. I had the respect of the commanding officer. I had the respect of the troops.

The community council was organized in 1967. There was two of us that headed it. We organized the Roosevelt Community Council in 1967. I was one of the two people that headed the council. I headed that for several years.

The purpose of the council was to give the community some voice in its government. In other words, Roosevelt does not have a government as such. Our government is the town of Hempstead. So we technically had no voice in running the government. But the council was to give us a voice, so it had to be constructed and operated in such a way that the town would listen to us. So whenever we went to the town of Hempstead or to Mineola, as far as the county is concerned, we said we're from the Roosevelt Community Council. That was far different from a person just walking in as an individual and yelling and screaming.

The swimming pool in that area around the swimming pool that you see in Roosevelt right now, that I really can take credit for that, the swimming pool. When I had a call from Newsday of course, this young lady that was assigned to monitor what was going on in Roosevelt, called me in the middle of the night and said, "Mr. Brown, I heard they're going to build a swimming pool in Roosevelt." Well, I hadn't heard that. She had attended a meeting someplace. So the very next day I was over at the town trying to find out what kind of pool we were going to get, and more or less being grateful for the fact that we were getting a pool finally, because we were trying to get one. I learned the pool was going to be a little three-foot-deep pool, with no diving pool or anything else. And that just set everybody off when the word got out what the size of the pool was going to be and what it would consist of. Immediately they insisted I call a meeting of the community council so we could decide how we were going to march on the town of Hempstead for giving us such a thing that they called a pool. And my answer to that was, that's not the way to do it. Let's go talk to the town of Hempstead and see what we can work out. I was just as unhappy as they were, but I didn't see performing an unlawful act as being the solution to it. So I called the town of Hempstead, spoke to the supervisor. And I told him that we wanted a meeting with him and the engineers. So he said, okay. You can bring whoever you want from Roosevelt and we can discuss this. Because the way it stands now, if the pool is built the way it's planned we're going to have trouble, and what we don't need is people being upset. We want a swimming pool, we want one that's going to be worthwhile.

I would hesitate to call it discrimination in this case. I think it's more or less, and I use the words from Richard Nixon, "benign neglect." It was, at least to me, it appeared as far as the town was concerned, any little thing was satisfactory as far as we were concerned. In other words, we weren't going to complain, or even if we complained, nothing was going to be done about it. So I use the words, 'benign neglect.' I don't blame everything on black or white. It's just people in position to do things just neglected to do it. And as long as they got away with it, nothing was done. But once we had the community council going, we would go up to those people and tell them in no uncertain words that we're not satisfied with this and we'd like to have it changed.

We were there for several hours one Thursday night. When we left, we had his promise that the swimming pool was going to be expanded, an additional deeper pool, that we'd have a diving pool and the area around it would be made into a park. None of this had been planned for. If they had gone ahead and started the work, then probably nothing could have been done.

In the Sixties, I'm thankful for the work of the civil rights workers who had given so much of their time and effort up to that point I'm going to have to go back to the basic part of the civil right struggle. I took what we had and tried to move it forward. My reason for doing this is I didn't feel that we should be just a bunch of protesters, protesting what's happening, but doing something for everyone and as a result, we would benefit from it. I was never a marcher, I never got in the street and marched, but I attended meetings night after night and finally convinced the community that we need to be just as resourceful as far as people are concerned, no matter who the persons were.

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