Dr. Brown's Decision

Shunpiking Magazine No 38

Promptly at seven a big car drew up in front of the Booker T. Washington Hotel, and a white chauffeur in uniform got out and went toward the door, intending to ask at the desk for a colored professor named T. Walton Brown. But the professor was already there, sitting in the lobby, a white scarf around his neck and his black overcoat ready to button over his dinner clothes.

As soon as the chauffeur entered, the professor approached.

"Mr. Chandler's car?" he asked hesitantly.

"Yes, sir," said the white chauffeur to the clean little Negro.

"Are you Dr. Walton Brown?"

"I am," said the professor, smiling and bowing a little.

The chauffeur opened the street door for Dr. Brown, then ran to the car and held the door open there too. Inside the big car the lights came on, and on the long black running-board as well. The professor stepped in among the soft cushions, the deep rug and the cut glass vases holding flowers. With the greatest of difference the chauffeur quickly tucked a covering of fur about the professor's knees, closed the door, entered his own seat in front, beyond the glass partition, and the big car purred away. Within the lobby of the cheap hotel, a few ill-clad Negroes watched the whole procedure in amazement.

"A big shot!" somebody said.

At the corner as the car passed, two or three ash-colored children ran across the street in front of the wheels, their skinny legs and cheap clothes plain in the glare of the headlights as the chauffeur slowed down to let them pass. Then the car turned and ran the whole length of a Negro street that was lined with pawn shops, beer joints, pig's knuckle stands, ten-cent movies, hair-dressing parlors and other ramshackle places of business patronized by the poor blacks of the district. Inside the big car the professor, Dr. Walton Brown, regretted that in all the large cities where he had lectured on his present tour in behalf of his college, the main Negro streets presented this same sleazy and disagreeable appearance: pig's-knuckle joints, pawn shops, beer parlors, and houses of vice, no doubt - save these latter, at least, did not hang out their signs.

The professor looked away from the unpleasant sight of this typical Negro street, poor and unkempt. He looked ahead through the glass at the dignified white neck of the uniformed chauffeur in front of him. The professor in his dinner clothes, his brown face even browner above the white silk scarf at his neck, felt warm and comfortable under the fur rug - but he felt, too, a little unsafe at being driven through the streets of this city on the edge of the South in an expensive car, by a white chauffeur.

"But then," he thought, "this is the wealthy Mr. Ralph P. Chandler's car, and surely no harm can come to me here. The Chandlers are a power in the Middle West, and in the South as well. Theirs is one of the great fortunes of America. In philanthropy, nobody exceeds them in well-planned generosity on a large and highly publicised scale. They are a power in Negro education, too, and that is why I am visiting them tonight, at their invitation."

Just now, the Chandlers were interested in the little Negro college at which the professor taught. They wanted to make it one of the major colleges in America. And in particular the Chandlers were interested in his Department of Sociology. They were thinking of endowing a chair of research there, and employing a man of ability for it. A Ph.D. and a scholar. A man of some prestige, too, like the professor. For his the Sociology of Prejudice(that restrained and conservative study of Dr. T. Walton Brown's) had recently come to attention of the Chandler Committee, and a representative of the Committee found Dr. Brown highly gratifying, because in almost every case the professor's views agreed with the white man's own.

"A fine, sane, dependable young Negro," was the description that came to the Chandler committee from their traveling representative.

So now the power himself, Mr. Ralph P. Chandler, and Mrs. Chandler, learning that he was lecturing at the colored churches of the town, had invited him to dinner at their mansion in this city on the edge of the South. Their car had come to call for him at the colored Booker T. Washington Hotel - where the hot water was always cold, the dresser drawers stuck and the professor shivered as he got into his dinner clothes; and the bellboys, anxious for a tip, had asked him twice if he needed a half pint or a woman.

But now he was in a big warm car and they were moving swiftly down a wide boulevard, the black slums far behind them. The professor was glad. He had been very much distressed at having the white chauffeur call for him at this cheap Negro hotel in what really amounted to the red light district of the town. But then none of the white hotels in this American city would keep Negroes, no matter how cultured they might be. Roland Hayes himself had been unable to find decent accommodations there, so the colored papers said, on the day of his concert.

Sighing, the professor looked out of the car at the wide lawns and fine homes that lined the beautiful and well-lined boulevard where white people lived. After a time the car turned into a fashionable suburban road, and one saw no more houses, but only ivy-hung walls and shrubs and boxwoods that indicated not merely homes beyond, but vast estates. Shortly the car whirled into a paved driveway, past a small lodge, through a park full of fountains and trees and up to a private house as large as a hotel. From a tall portico a great hanging lantern cast a soft glow on the black and nickel of the body of the big car. The white chauffeur jumped out and differentially opened the door for the colored professor. An English butler welcomed him at the entrance, and took his coat and hat and scarf. Then he led the professor into a large drawing room where two men and a woman were standing chatting near the fireplace.

The professor hesitated, not knowing who was who; but Mr. and Mrs. Chandler came forward, introducing themselves, shook hands and in turn presented their other guest of the evening, Dr. Bulwick of the Municipal College - a college that Dr. Brown recalled did not admit Negroes.

Langston HughesLangston Hughes, born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, won distinction in many fields of creative endeavour and is one of the most widely known and read Afro-American writers in the world. In the 1920s he took part in the Harlem Renaissance and won poetry prizes from Crisis and Opportunity. His published works include several volumes of verse, short stories, novels, and memoirs. His play Mulatto enjoyed a long run on Broadway and on tour. Hughes died in 1967. Donald C. Dickinson's A Bio-Bibliography of Langston Hughes, 1902-1967 [1967] is a valuable source of information about Hughes and his work, as is The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes [1995] by Arnold Rampersad.

"Dr. Brown's Decision" originally appeared in The Anvil, May-June, 1935, a "little magazine" based in Chicago from 1932-1935 and one of the few magazines that published stories by and about Afro-Americans.

"I am happy to know you," said Dr. Bulwick. "I am also a sociologist."

"I have heard of you," said Dr. Brown graciously.

The butler came with sherry in a silver pitcher. They sat down, and the whites began to talk politely, to ask Dr. Brown about his lecture tour, if his audiences were good, if they were mostly Negroes or mixed, and if there was much interest in his college, much money being given.

Then Dr. Bulwick began to ask about his book, The Sociology of Prejudice, where he got his material, under whom had he studied, and if he thought the Negro Problem would ever be solved.

Dr. Brown said genially, "We are making progress," which was what he always said, though he often felt as if he were lying.

"Yes," said Dr. Bulwick, "that is very true. Why, at our city college here we have been conducting some fine inter-racial experiments. I have had several colored ministers and high school teachers visit my classes. We found them most intelligent people."

In spite of himself Dr. Brown had to say, "But you have no colored students at your college, have you?"

"No," said Dr. Bulwick, "and that is to bad! But that is one of our difficulties here. There is no Municipal College for Negroes - although nearly forty percent of our population is colored. Some of us thought it might be wise to establish a separate junior college for our Negroes, but the politicians opposed it on the score of no funds. And we cannot take them as students on our campus. That, at present, is impossible. It's too bad."

"But do you not think, Dr. Brown," interposed Mrs. Chandler, who wore diamonds on her wrists and smiled every time she spoke, "do you not think your people are happier in schools of their own - that it is really better for both groups not to mix them?"

In spite of himself Dr. brown replied, "That depends, Mrs. Chandler. I could not have gotten my degree in any schools of our own."

"True, true," said Mr. Chandler. "Advanced studies, of course, cannot be gotten.

But when your colleges are developed - as we hope they will be, and as our Committee plans to aid in their development - when their departments are headed by men like yourself, for instance, then you can no longer say, 'That depends'."

"you are right," Dr. Brown agreed diplomatically, coming to himself and thinking of his mission in that house. "You are right," Dr. Brown said, thinking too of what endowed chair of sociology and himself in the chair, the six thousand dollars a year that he would probably be paid, the surveys he might make and the books he could publish. "You are right," said Dr. Brown diplomatically to Mr. Ralph P. Chandler - but in the back of his head was that ghetto street full of sleazy misery he had just driven through, and the segregated hotel where his hot water was always cold, and the colored churches where he lectured to masses of simple folks exploited by money-grabbing ministers he dared not warn them against, and the Jimcrow schools where Negroes always got the worst of it - less equipment and far less money than the white institutions; and that separate justice of the South where his people sat on trial but the whites were judge and jury forever - like Scottsboro; and all the segregated Jimcrow things that America gave Negroes and that were never better, or even equal to the things she gave the whites. But Dr. Brown said,

"You are right, Mr. Chandler," for, after all, Mr. Chandler had the money!

So he began to talk earnestly to the Chandlers there in the warm drawing room about the need for bigger and better black colleges, for more and more surveys of Negro life, and a well-developed department of sociology at his own little institution.

"Dinner is served," said the butler.

They rose and went into a dining room where there were flowers on the table, and candles, and much linen and silver, and where Dr. Brown was seated at the right of the hostess, and the talk was light over the soup, but serious and sociological again by the time the meat was served.

"The American Negro must not be taken in by Communism," Dr. Bulwick was saying with great positiveness as the butler passed the peas.

"He won't," agreed Dr. Brown. "I assure you, our leadership stands squarely against it." He looked at the Chandlers and bowed. "Dr. Kelly Miller stands against it, and Dr. DuBois, Dr. Hope and Dr. Morton. All the best people stand against it."

"America has done too much for the Negro," said Mr. Chandler, "for him to seek to destroy it."

Dr. Brown bobbed and bowed.

"In your Sociology of Prejudice," said Dr. Bulwick, "I highly approve of the closing note, your magnificent appeal to the old standards of Christian morality and the simple concept of justice on which America was founded."

"Yes," said Dr. Brown, nodding his dark head and thinking suddenly how on six thousand dollars a year, he might take his family to Paris in the summer, where for three months they wouldn't feel like Negroes. "Yes, Dr. Bulwick," he nodded, "I firmly believe as you do that the best elements of both races came together in Christian fellowship, we would solve this problem of ours."

"How beautiful," said Mrs. Chandler.

"And practical, too," said her husband. "But now to come back to your college - university, I believe you call it - to bring that institution up to really first class standards you would need...?"

"We would need...," said Dr. Brown, speaking as a mouthpiece of the administration, and speaking, too, as mouthpiece for the Negro students of his section of the South, and speaking for himself as a once ragged youth who had attended the college when its rating was lower than that of a Northern high school and when he had to study two years in Boston before he could enter a white college, when he had worked nights as red cap in the station and then as a waiter for seven years as he got his Ph.D. and couldn't get a job in the North but had to go back down South to the work he had now - but which might develop into a glorious opportunity at six thousand dollars a year to make surveys and to put down figures that other scholars might study to get their Ph.D.'s, and that would bring him in enough to just once take his family to Europe where they wouldn't feel that they were Negroes. "We would need, Mr. Chandler...."

And the things Dr. Brown's little college needed were small enough in the eyes of the Chandlers. And the sane and conservative way in which Dr. Brown presented his case delighted the philanthropic heart of the Chandlers. And Mr. Chandler and Dr. Bulwick both felt that instead of building a junior college for Negroes in their own town they would rightfully advise colored students from now on to go down South to that fine little campus where they had a man of their own race like Dr. Brown

Over the coffee, in the drawing room, they talked about the coming theatrical season and Four Saints In Three Acts. And Mrs. Chandler spoke of how she loved Negro singers, and smiled and smiled.

In due time, the professor rose to go. The car was called, and he shook hands with Dr. Bulwick and the Chandlers. The white people were delighted with Dr. Brown. He could see it in their faces, just as in the past he could always tell as a waiter when he had pleased a table of whites by tender steaks and good service.

"Tell the president of your college he shall hear from us shortly," said the Chandlers. "We'll probably send a man down again soon to talk to him about his expansion program." And they bowed farewell.

A few moments later in the car as it sped him back toward town, Dr. Brown sat under the soft fur rug among the deep cushions and thought how with six thousand dollars a year earned by jigging properly to the tune of Jimcrow education, he could carry his whole family to Europe where just once for a summer they wouldn't need to feel like Negroes.


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