Drafted into the Navy in May 1944, Algenon L. Brown found his potential stymied at every turn.
After boot camp, he trained at Hampton Institute to become a machinist’s mate.
“We thought we’d be working on motors because we’d been made to take down a whole engine and put it back together,” Brown, 94, recalled during an interview at his home on Richmond’s North Side. But when his group of black sailors arrived in Hawaii, they were put to work rolling oil drums in the sweltering heat.
“We had the courage after one day to refuse to do it, and they threatened to put us in the brig,” he recalled.
Instead, the men were sent to a naval supply depot in Guam, which had been recaptured from the Japanese. Brown and his fellow black sailors were segregated from their white counterparts, repairing tires on cars, trucks and forklifts.
“We were tested frequently for promotions,” he recalled. “I passed the first test and was made third class motor machinist, equivalent of sergeant. The next tests that were given were second class, first class or chief. I was blessed to pass each one, each time.” But each time, the promotion went to a white sailor, he said.
“When I was discharged, I was still third class, because every time I passed and was eligible, they would write, ‘complement full,’ ” he recalled.
But the same Uncle Sam who discriminated against Brown helped him fulfill his potential upon his honorable discharge.
“The GI Bill was the beginning of a great blessing for me,” he said.
Brown was the child of divorced parents who lived in Church Hill and Charles City County. His father was prone to seizures; his mother was badly hurt in a bus accident. As a young teen, he shouldered adult responsibilities, caring for his mom and sister by delivering newspapers and working after school as an elevator operator — the latter job for $9 every two weeks.
After learning the vocation at Maggie L. Walker High School, he worked as a shoe repairman before being drafted into World War II.
“I didn’t think I would ever have the means in which to attend college,” he said, before obtaining the government assistance.
In 1946, Brown enrolled at Virginia Union University, where his classmates included future Richmond Public Schools superintendent Lucille Brown and the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, a renowned theologian and chief of staff for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
He graduated magna cum laude from VUU in 1950 with a degree in mathematics, winning honors in mathematics and French. He was awarded a fellowship at Howard University before transferring to Virginia State University, where he earned his master’s degrees in math and guidance.
While seeking a job as a math teacher in Richmond Public Schools, he inspected parachutes at the Naval Supply Depot in Richmond. Ultimately, he taught math and was a guidance counselor at Benjamin Graves Junior High before serving 24 years as a principal for RPS.
In 1993, Brown was appointed to the Richmond School Board by the Richmond City Council, shortly before city voters began electing School Board members.
“I was no politician,” he said. He lost his seat to his friend Melvin Law.
Getting him off the Capital Region Airport Commission has proven to be more difficult.
Appointed as a Richmond representative, he has served on that body for nearly 25 years, leading an effort along the way for more airport concessions owned by women and people of color.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, he has opened each commission meeting with a prayer.
“I’m not a chaplain — we don’t have one,” Brown said. “But I’m called on every meeting to open with prayer. That’s a nice honor.”
His wife of 60 years, Helen Hackett Brown, taught in Buckingham County for one year before being employed by RPS. She died in 2011.
His son, Kevin L. Brown, is a Superior Court judge in California; his daughter, Kelly B. Lemons, is an accounting professor and certified public accountant.
“I’ve been so blessed for the life I’ve had,” Brown said.
Even though he didn’t have the Navy experience he would have liked, it provided invaluable opportunities and life lessons.
“I think being in the military has a humbling effect,” he said. It gave him plenty of time to think, not only about what he’d do for himself, but for others. “And to prevent others from having to go through some of the things I’ve gone through.”
When he landed on the airport commission, he looked around and saw a dearth of minority business participation.
“Here I am, participating. And I’m determined to make a difference in what I find and what it should be. And I was blessed that the commissioners I worked with helped me,” he said.
“The service left me as if I had things to contribute, but no opportunity to do so. So I strive to gain that opportunity to improve my — along with others’ — lives.”