Brown, Lloyd Louis 1913–2003
Lloyd Louis Brown 1913–2003
The experiences of writer Lloyd L. Brown over his long life give insight into the forces that led many African Americans in the early and middle twentieth century to align themselves with leftist political philosophies. After a childhood in Minnesota enduring some of the worst poverty that northern cities could dish out to black Americans, Brown became a labor organizer and later a member of the Communist Party. An editor at several important political periodicals in the 1940s and 1950s, Brown worked with the pioneering African-American performer and activist Paul Robeson later in life and wrote a biography that offered valuable new insights into Robeson’s early years. Brown was also the author of a novel, Iron Citiy, and he wrote short fiction that drew on his own unique experiences.
Brown was born Lloyd Dight in St. Paul, Minnesota, on April 3, 1913. His father, Ralph, was an African-American railroad waiter from Alabama. His mother, Magdalena, a woman of German-American background, died when he was four, and Brown along with three siblings was sent to a black-run orphanage, the Crispus Attucks Home. His life there was not an easy one. “The food supply was really dreadful,” he told an interviewer from Minnesota History. “We were lucky to survive.” Brown recalled eating moldy bread; the actual mold had been cut away, but the taste remained.
Racism marked Brown’s childhood in many ways, from the abuse he received from classmates in St. Paul schools to the broken Christmas gifts Crispus Attucks children were brought by white charities. But no matter how difficult things became, his African-American ancestors, he realized, had it worse. The seeds of Brown’s future radicalism were sown in conversations he had with elderly former slaves who lived at or helped run the Crispus Attucks Home, as he realized the incredible suffering they had endured. “I had never known people with such dignity as those former slaves, men and women whose spirit was so utterly compassionate and humane,” he told Minnesota History.
After a stint in a Baltimore orphanage, Brown was moved back to St. Paul and placed in Catholic schools. He did well for a time and was elected class president in eighth grade, but in high school a rebellious streak surfaced. He dropped out of school and continued his education on his own, reading books on social thought at a public library. When he was 16, Brown jumped onto a freight train and left St. Paul for Youngstown, Ohio, where he planned to work in a steel mill. This was in 1929, just as the U.S. economy collapsed and left millions of factory workers jobless. Brown soon became a labor organizer affiliated with the Communist Party. It was at this time that he changed his last name from Dight to Brown, in honor of the uncompromising pre-Civil War abolitionist John Brown.
Brown worked as an organizer and agitator for more than ten years, participating in the labor union movement during its most tumultuous years. He married his wife, Lily, in 1935, and amid the events of Brown’s dangerous career they would raise two daughters. Threatened with the company-sponsored (and often state-sponsored) violence often visited upon union organizers,
At a Glance…
Born Lloyd Dight on April 3, 1913, in St. Paul, MN; died on April 1, 2003, Manhattan, NY; son of Ralph (a railroad worker) and Magdalena Dight; married Lily, June 7, 1937 (died 1996); children: Linda and Bonnie. Military service: U.S., Army (or Air Force), rose to rank of sergeant, 1942-45.
Career: Communist Party, labor organizer, 1930s; freelance journalist, early 1940s; New Masses, managing editor, late 1940s; Masses and Mainstream, managing editor, late 1940s; author, 1941-2003; personal secretary to Paul Robeson, 1952-76.
Selected awards: Carey McWilliams Award for scholarship contributing to cultural diversity, 1998.
Brown traveled at one point to Europe and to the Communist Soviet Union. He was imprisoned for a time in Pittsburgh, in 1941. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army (some sources place his service in the Air Force), earning the rank of sergeant in his segregated unit. Stationed in Salina, Kansas, for a time, he noted that local residents would serve meals to German prisoners of war interned there but refused to serve him and his fellow black soldiers. “If we were untermenschen in Nazi Germany,” he was quoted as saying by the New York Times, “they would break our bones. As ‘colored’ men in Salina, they only break our hearts.”
Brown’s writing career had begun with some newspaper articles during his European travels in the 1930s, but it kicked into high gear when he landed in New York City after the war. First as a freelance writer and then as an editor at the leftist-oriented New Masses and Masses and Mainstream, Brown wrote on various subjects: politics, labor unionism, lynching, and the world of popular entertainment. He published several short stories; one, “Orphans and Old Folks,” drew heavily on his own childhood in Minnesota. Brown also wrote a novel, Iron City;, that was based on the life of an unfairly imprisoned man he had met during his own stint in jail in 1941. That novel’s positive central character, as well as the warm depictions of African-American community life in his other fictional writings, stood in contrast to the grim tone of Richard Wright’s Native Son —the leading black novel of the day, but one that Brown sharply criticized.
In New York Brown worked with important black thinkers and writers such as Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, as well as American and international socialist figures. Around 1950 he met actor, singer, and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, and he often served as a ghostwriter on Robeson’s columns for the Harlem newspaper Freedom (which Robeson founded). In 1952 Brown resigned from his journalistic positions to become Robeson’s full-time assistant, remaining in that position until Robeson’s death in 1976. Robeson along with other leftist figures suffered from Hollywood blacklisting during the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s, but never backed down from his convictions. Much of Brown’s time in those years was spent in assisting Robeson with his 1958 autobiography and manifesto, Here I Stand.
After that, Brown became interested in conducting his own research on the great performer’s life. His efforts grew into a pamphlet published in 1976 called Paul Robeson Rediscovered and finally into the 1997 full-length biography The Young Paul Robeson, which won the 1998 Carey McWilliams Award for scholarship contributing to cultural diversity. Brown delved into Robeson’s ancestry, which encompassed Southern slaves on his father’s side and urban activist black traditions on his mother’s.
A familiar figure around New York in his later years, Brown became a prolific writer on whatever subjects caught his interest. He wrote opinion columns for newspapers, addressing police brutality among other subjects; he wrote magazine articles; and he carried on lively correspondence by letter with other writers. Prior to his death from a lung disease on April 1, 2003, in Manhattan, New York, Brown wrote down instructions for his own funeral and gave them to his daughter Linda. “Your late father,” he wrote (according to the New York Times), “detested long-winded memorials.”
Iron City;, novel, Masses and Mainstream, 1951.
(with Paul Robeson) Here I Stand, Othello Associates, 1958; reissued 1988.
The Young Paul Robeson: On My Journey Now, Westview Press, 1997.
Also wrote numerous political pamphlets and magazine articles, 1940s and 1950s.
African American Review, Summer 1996, p. 320; Summer 2000, p. 353.
MELUS, Fall 1999, p. 172.
Minnesota History, Fall 2001, p. 368.
New York Times, April 14, 2003, p. F8; June 3, 2003, p. B1.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), April 19, 2003, p. B10.
“Lloyd L(ouis) Brown,” Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (October 6, 2003).
—James M. Manheim
"Brown, Lloyd Louis 1913–2003." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 17, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/brown-lloyd-louis-1913-2003
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