Sunshine and a light breeze — it’s a gorgeous day at Freedmen Memorial Park, and Chuck Beatty is thinking about the pioneers from the past who made the black granite inscriptions possible.
The monuments are flanked by concrete etched with broken links, representing the end of slavery, and a striped concrete sidewalk representing the cotton fields that brought slaves to the south in the first place.
The black granite itself was imported from Africa, a reminder of the geographical roots of African Americans.
And there are the names of many of the leaders whose devotion to community life in Waxahachie laid the groundwork for the modern black community here.
“I’ve been thinking about what they went through,” Beatty says as a young family from the neighborhood walks through the park, a mother pushing a stroller, happy youngsters at her side. “By the same token, I think about some of their accomplishments.
“I know when I look at this place, give our recent history of electing the first black president, I come back to look at the people’s names inscribed here. We’re standing on their shoulders. That’s where I derive a lot of my energy from,” Beatty says.
From the former Waxahachie mayor’s retelling, that energy that worked with other community leaders like Sylvia Smith and Mattie Borders to prepare the Freedmen Memorial owes much to a man named George Brown.
“George Brown was a man who was way ahead of his time,” Beatty recalls.
George Brown was born March 1, 1925 to Roy Brown Sr. and Ernestine Hartman Brown.
He graduated from Oaklawn High School in Waxahachie in 1943, and attended Tillotson College, an historically black college in Austin, Texas.
Drafted into the U.S. Army, he was a hero of World War II vintage – he earned four Bronze Stars, he was in the Battle of the Bulge, and he was awarded the Purple Heart.
Experience in the European Theatre of WWII taught black American soldiers more than just combat, Beatty says.
Regarded as equals and individuals in an unsegregated country that had ousted class layers 150 years before, and where the motto of “Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood” reigned, was enlightening.
“Fighting in France and in Germany, they got to see the world. George talked about how differently they were treated in France. I guess it opened a whole world to them. After that, it was just a matter of time – they were going to start asking for their equal rights,” Beatty says.
“It became this (civil rights) wave that couldn’t be stopped. “
George Brown became a local businessman who turned his background as an airline mechanic for Braniff and an auto mechanic at J.C. Penney automotive into a busy automotive garage in his Waxahachie hometown. He opened his own business, Brown and Moody’s Garage at 211 Ennis St.
He was active in community organizations, including Citizens for Progress, Kiwanis and NAACP.
But he still took the time to encourage the next generations of black leadership.
“George Brown came back to Waxahachie, and he made a significant difference for the people he touched and helped grow. He was one of my mentors, and he was the reason I came back to Waxahachie,” Beatty says, remembering the man who helped him get a scholarship to North Texas, what is now the University of North Texas.
Chuck Beatty graduated from Turner High School in 1964; it was a black high school at the time; Waxahachie ISD desegregated two years later, in 1966. Coming 12 years after Brown v. Board of Education, the integration effort was late, as it was in much of Texas, but it went smoothly, Beatty recalls.
“George Brown had known me all my life, he basically knew my character,” he says, recalling the day George Brown took time off from his business to transport the carless football recruit to college.
Everything Beatty owned was in a rusty footlocker that he had carefully repainted. They put it in Brown’s trunk and set off on the journey.
And on the trip to Denton, young Chuck Beatty, who would rise to gridiron greatness on the field at North Texas and then as a Pittsburgh Steeler, got advice he still remembers.
Brown told the young Beatty to apply himself to his academics at North Texas: if he could compete there, he could make it anywhere.
“I was the first black student from Waxahachie to go to a predominantly white college,” Beatty recalls.
“We talked about how I should come back to Waxahachie some day. I told him I’d be back, and I would see what I could do. He wanted me to return to Waxahachie.”
After his NFL career, Chuck Beatty returned to the Gingerbread Capital of Texas, where he was elected to the city council, to work side by side with his mentor.
George Brown was on the Waxahachie City Council for over 30 years, beginning in 1970. He was Waxahachie’s first black mayor, serving in that capacity from 1980 to 1982, and as mayor pro-tem after that.
No small feat in a Southern town where pockets of prejudice could still be found in the years following the heyday of the civil rights movement.
George Brown was not without honor in his own home town. On June 30, 1998, the city named George Brown Plaza in his honor. The plaza is located at 209 N. Jackson.
In 1999, he became the first black person to be designated the Waxahachie Citizen of the Year.
Chuck Beatty attributes Brown’s success to his stainless reputation in a town small enough for everyone to know each other – and smooth, unruffled diplomacy.
“He overcame a lot to get to that point. You had to be a good politician as well as a good person. To emerge as the first black mayor was a tremendous accomplishment,” Beatty says.
As a politician who eventually became mayor himself, Beatty looked to Brown as an example, he says.
“I used to pick his brain.
“Wherever George Brown went, he was respected. He wasn’t a man of many words, but when he spoke, people listened,” Beatty recalls, a far off look in his eyes.
“He was fair-minded – that was the way he approached city government. He would try to be fair. George Brown was a humanitarian – he got along with everyone. He was a visionary – he saw things the way they should be, and he worked in his own way to get things done.”
Brown left the Waxahachie City Council in 2001, and he died on Jan. 14, 2004.
In addition to his wife Dorothy Sherman Moody Brown, whom he married in 1985, and his children, Derwin Moody, Charles Moody and Janiece (Nikki) Brown-Okpuzor, George Brown left to mourn him everyone who remembered him as Beatty does.
And as we look for an analogy at Freedmen Memorial on a bright day in Black History Month in 2009, Beatty’s gaze falls on trees planted in the East Waxahachie soil — trees that have outlasted the little nightclub where entertainers like B.B. King and Ike and Tina Turner came on the black “Chitlin Circuit” to entertain in days of segregation when the town’s black population had its own clubs and theaters.
The old club building is gone, a remnant of foundation remains – and the trees beyond it, surrounding a neighborhood church, are still growing, still providing shade for the future.
“George was like an oak tree, tall and strong. He stood for what he believed on. He set a solid foundation and he was always helpful to anybody who would listen to him,” Beatty says.
Chuck Beatty thinks about other mayors and leaders nationwide who got their start in East Waxahachie, who, like him, perhaps, stand on the shoulders of giants in a post-civil rights era.
There’s Emmanuel Cleaver, the first black mayor of Kansas City, Mo. and now a U.S. congressman from Missouri. He was raised in one of East Waxahachie’s little frame shotgun houses, so called because of their narrow width.
T.D. Patterson grew up across from the Joshua Chapel. He became the first black president of the Texas Municipal League and first black mayor pro-tem of Lubbock.
Bobby Mitchell, the first black mayor of Lewisville, is now on the Denton County commission.
There are others, and Beatty hopes the Freedmen Memorial will grow to include tributes to such successes. And there will be more successes, he’s sure of it.
“There’s a lot of stuff we might take for granted, but Obama has inspired a lot of people to vote. We’ve come a long way, we’ve still got a long way to go,” he says as the wind picks up.
“It’s not just black history once a year – it’s black history all year long with this memorial.”
E-mail J.Louise at firstname.lastname@example.org.