Photo with Mr. James L. Brown, IV & Mrs. Charlotte
Brown is a picture of Mr. Brown’s first hand-built structure
from a North Philly alley near Temple in 1962.
Recently, I visited the home of the great historic preservationist, Mr. James Leroy Brown, IV and his wife Charlotte. The 80-year old Mr. Brown sat down with this reporter of, no relation, to talk to me about his work, his life and the great reputation he’s built over 54 years as a historic preservationist in Philadelphia’s East Parkside section of West Philadelphia.
Here is Mr. Brown’s Journey in Parkside
Starting his restoration company, the Parkside Historic Preservation Corporation (PHPC) in 1964, James L. Brown was to become an African-American preservationist that few had known but over his career stood out as one of the best in the City of Brotherly Love.
Mr. Brown originally worked as a biologist at Temple Medical Center as a medical researcher from 1960 to 1965. He began work under Dr. Harry S. Shay who was the Department Head of Gastroenterology at the Fels Research Institute at Temple University.
Mr. Brown was born in 1937. His father was a doctor and his mother was a schoolteacher in the segregated south. He says back then many of the landmark cases in civil rights dealing with school cases were won in Virginia.
Mr. Brown and his wife Charlotte moved from Virginia to Philadelphia in 1961. Mr. Brown rented their first apartment in the Parkside area from the landlord, Mr. William Henderson who was one of the first blacks to purchase one of the mini-mansions on Parkside Avenue at 4224.
Having the love of his life Charlotte Brown, a schoolteacher whom he met through her sorority sister an AKA (Alpha Kappa Alpha) at Whitcomb Court Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia on December 6, 1958.
“It was my first teaching job,” says Mrs. Brown
They both graduated from historically black colleges in Virginia. Mr. Brown is a member of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity and graduated from Virginia Union in Richmond and Mrs. Charlotte is a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and graduated from St. Paul College in Lawrenceville.
Mrs. Brown later worked as a schoolteacher at the Morton Mc Michael Elementary School in Mantua during the early 1960’s when they moved to Philadelphia. The two would marry in 1961. They have two adult children, son James L. Brown, V, is a financial planner, a restorator and a property manager. His daughter Nancy W. (Brown) McRae, Esquire and teaches legal writing in Washington, DC at the University of the District of Columbia. They both have two children each.
They worked together to build a life and a business that would benefit and celebrate a community that has reflected their life’s commitment to each other for 56 years and counting.
The Parkside area was going through an ethnic change as the Browns explained. This happens when parts of an area of one ethnic group move out and another ethnic group moves in to create and establish themselves as the new community residents. Mr. Brown stated that the first black to reside in the East Parkside area was a gentleman named Postel Vaughn and he lived on Parkside Avenue.
This was a period when Jewish families began moving out of the Parkside area and African-Americans families were moving in. The buildings were not in very good condition and needed to be rehabbed to the proper living conditions that were expected for families to live in according to Mr. Brown.
“Mrs. Brown says her husband’s first fight to defend his neighborhood was to join forces with the community and protest and boycott a nuisance bar at 42nd Street. People were coming out that bar getting into accidents. We got a petition, went to city hall and wanted that bar removed. This was a movement in Parkside and people were very supportive of the things we fought for in this community.
While living at the Apartments with his wife, in his off hours, a young James Leroy Brown was working with his landlord William Henderson and began rehabbing and working on houses in the neighborhood of East Parkside.
Mrs. Brown mentioned during our recent interview that, “redlining in Parkside in the 1960’s was so prevalent that they were forced to use one income to sustain their family. We saved up enough money to buy our first building, which was a 6-unit apartment building at 4218 Parkside Avenue.
In order for us to get funding and assistance,” says Mrs. Brown. “It was easier for us to get funds if we were restoring and preserving the homes that were already there like they were before (run down and dilapidated).”
“We looked at each other,” adds Mrs. Brown. “And we said, we can save this block. We then started cleaning up the 4200 blocks of Parkside Avenue. ” Mrs. Brown says, “It was absolutely necessary that we sought funding for the work that we were doing. Those areas of funding included the City of Philadelphia, State of Pennsylvania and the Federal government level. We looked for grants and partnerships in order to achieve all of the restorations that was completed here.”
Mr. Brown and wife Charlotte say they were thankful to the Berean Savings & Loan Association at 52nd & Chestnut Street in West Philadelphia. This was the historic black bank that gave them the loan to purchase their first building. People like Mr. Jim Hughes (father of our State Senator Vincent J. Hughes), were instrumental in making that dream happen for the Browns.
Both generations of the Hughes family, the late Jim Hughes and current State Senator Vincent J. Hughes have played an important role in the ventures of Mr. Brown’s Historic Preservation efforts. “Vincent Hughes has been to many of our ribbon-cutting ceremonies,” says Mrs. Brown. Also, Mrs. Brown reminds us that the wonderful churches in this community have been very supportive of Mr. Brown’s efforts and participation as a community activist over the years.
Mr. Brown was able to meet and network his skills with other community leaders like the Rev. Dr. Andy Jenkins and late Dr. Herman C. Wrice who were having similar issues in their community of Mantua in the early 1960’s when the cultural transitions began for both Mantua and Parkside.
When working for the Redevelopment Authority in the mid 60’s, I met Andy Jenkins of Mantua while he was developing the Mantua Community Planners in Mantua and I was reviewing their plans for their community.
Mr. Brown also worked alongside Rev. Jenkins, and the late Dr. Wrice, who came together to build a set of row homes on the 3600 block of Warren Street across from the former University City High School in the late 1960’s with tenants still currently residing there.
Mr. Brown has made a career in the neighborhood preservation that has captured the eye of thousands when they see his works along the 4100 and 4200 blocks of Parkside Avenue.
In 1994, fire struck The Brentwood Apartments and destroyed a majority of the properties as shown in a photo and article in the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper on Wednesday, June 22, 1994, in the Metro section B from page “Fire Hits Parkside Restoration Row”. Mr. Brown is quoted as saying “Just another challenge”.
Mr. Brown was able to restore the buildings as you see them today from the devastation that the damage had done to the properties during the fire. Wife Charlotte adds, “He doesn’t take ‘No’ for an
answer” when things or problems come up. He has been celebrated with many awards and accolades such as the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia in 1996, the Rudy Bruner Award for Excellence in the Urban Environment in 1999 and the Henry A. Jordan Award for his Outstanding Historic Preservation at the local level for his community.
The Parkside Historic District was created in 1983 because of the preservation work of Mr. Brown. His work in the Parkside area is on the National Register of Historic Places.
All of Mr. Brown’s historic and restored buildings such as The Lansdowne (4102 Parkside Ave.), The Brentwood (4200 – Parkside Ave. and The Brantwood (4146 and 4150-52) can be seen throughout the Parkside area.
For the past few years, The Pennsylvania Lottery uses his building at 42nd & Parkside Avenue as its great backdrop to advertise their winter commercials to promote its lottery scratch-off games. I asked Mr. Brown the question, what advice would you give a student from the School of the Future about becoming a historic preservationist? Mr. Brown responded by saying, “My mother said always give back to your community,” states Mr. Brown. “I had talents and things I could do with my hands.”
“Also, to create something that’s long standing in your community,” adds Mr. Brown. “They should have an interest in history. I want the young people to be passionate about why they want to be a preservationist and work in your community to complete your restoration projects to give your community a sense of pride.”
During Mr. Brown’s journey, he has accomplished many things and done the one thing that many often fail to do, that’s to give something back to your community. That sentiment is a favorite staple of Mr. Brown’s thinking, along with his feeling of the importance of working together and sharing his life with his soul-mate-Charlotte Brown.
Mr. Brown met Muhammad Ali, arguably, the greatest heavyweight champ of all time. He also met Joe Louis, a true champion from his era. Doug Wilder, the first black governor of Virginia, was a good friend and he grew up with Spotswood Robinson and Oliver Hill families and both were civil rights lawyers in Virginia during the segregation era.
The people and celebrities that Mr. Brown has met and befriended gives you a wow moment to think about the people you may meet in your life when creating a passion and need to serve not only your community but your heritage as well.
“As I reflect on the goals that I set out to achieve with my Historic Preservation Company in Parkside,” reflects Mr. Brown. “I have overachieved my goals. Really to my surprise, with belief, faith, and some hard knocks, things worked out. But stay in there brother and everything will be alright.” Mr. Brown has left an indelible mark on the Parkside area and throughout Philadelphia.
“I’d like to see the fruits of my work continue through others,” says Mr. Brown. “In particularly through my children. With the courage and belief that they can do what seems to be impossible can be done. And to do your best and that’s all I can say to them.”
The last question asked to Mr. Brown was about his health and from what I saw during our interview was a tall, lanky man and he walked with a cane. He was reserved, initially but when the conversations started, Mr. Brown was able to give me the information I needed for this story about his life’s work.
“He suffered a mild stroke in December of 2013,” explains Mrs. Brown. “He’s been a real soldier. He’s fought it and he’s doing the very best that he can. And he stopped smoking.”
“It’s been a nice ride with my husband”, says wife Charlotte Brown. Mr. James Leroy Brown turned 81 on August 30th. Happy Birthday Mr. Brown from the Parkside Journal.
This was a great two and a half hour engaging conversation with Mr. Brown and his wife Charlotte that I was excited to have with community history. Know your neighborhood heroes because they live among us.
Email Jim Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org