I was born in Nashville and spent the first four years of my life in Tuskegee, Ala.
My father, Dr. John O. Brown Sr., moved to Miami in 1955 to begin his practice in ophthalmology. To this day, I’m glad he did.
We had neighbors who were white and black. Our next-door neighbor was an older white lady who inspired my mother’s love for growing orchids and my brother’s passion for collecting butterflies.
I attended schools — Jackson’s Toddle Inn and Floral Heights — that were all black. I remember those as happy years.
My life changed dramatically when I started sixth grade at Gladeview Elementary, the year desegregation was implemented in Dade County. I was too young to know this was a victory for my father and the other parents who had filed a lawsuit against the Dade County School Board in 1956 to make this possible. I only knew that I was sick every morning and that I was not happy there.
It got worse when I attended Miami Edison Junior High. In my first year, there were only three Negro children in the school, and one left after a short time. I felt different, disliked by some of the children and just tolerated by the teachers — because of the color of my skin.
It was not until the ninth grade that many more students of color enrolled and I finally I had friends. I continued at Miami Edison Senior and led a peaceful “sit-in” in my senior year to protest discriminatory practices.
My years of experience being the “token” Negro child propelled me to leave Miami in 1968 to attend Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville.
The summer before I left for college, the riots of 1968 exploded. I remember our family being on the floor of our home off 62nd Street, frightened by bullets fired at the National Guard tanks parked in our front yard, from the residents in the projects across the street.
I recall working for the U.S. Department of Immigration and Naturalization in the summer of my first year in college. I was responsible for processing the visas for new arrivals from Cuba. I remember being instructed to type on every visa under the heading of race the letter “W” for white, despite the accompanying photo being of a person much darker than myself. It reminded me again of the second-class status of African Americans.
I graduated from Fisk in 1972 and returned home to Miami. Life seemed uneventful until the riots of 1980. I had just returned home from the hospital with my newborn baby. We had to evacuate our home due to the lootings, fires and loss of electricity in Liberty City. I remember being on the floor of our car, holding my baby for safety.
We were seeking refuge at my brother’s home in El Portal, where residents were barbecuing and watering their grass, oblivious to the civil unrest only a few miles away. Later that year, I moved to the Bahamas, where I spent the next 15 years.
I found it ironic that Bahamians referred to me as an American, an identity I had never been identified with in the United States. All through my life I was “colored, Negro, black, Afro-American or African-American” — never only American.
When I returned to Miami in 1995, it was a very different place. People of color were no longer African-Americans, but were from the Caribbean, Haiti, Trinidad, South America — with different languages and cultures.
I take pride in growing up in Liberty City. To this day, I find myself defending it against those who only see it as drug- and crime-infested and fear going there. Overlooked are the many success stories of Liberty City.
I remember my father saying that he chose to build our home in Liberty City — when we could have afforded to live elsewhere — because he wanted to be among the people he was fighting so hard for.
My father fought tirelessly to help bring about many of the changes in Miami we take for granted today. We can attend any public school, shop wherever we want, eat wherever we choose and go to any movie theater — all because of the barriers he helped to bring down. He sacrificed time spent away from his four young children, which in his later years he regretted.
It saddens me that there are no streets named after him, nor schools or community centers to honor his contributions. But in my heart, I know that because of him and so many others like him, this country now has an African-American president and he is smiling and saying it was well worth the fight.