Source: United States House of Representatives – Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (1st District of Nebraska)
When I was in third grade, I had a friend named Phillip Brown. My birthday party was nearing, and it was common at the time to invite all the boys in the class to a party. I did invite everyone, including Phillip, who was a particularly close friend.
The party was at a roller-skating rink in Baton Rouge. As I was opening presents, my father came up to me and whispered in my ear, “Jeffrey, is Phillip a Black boy?” I said, “Yes.” Then I didn’t think about it anymore.
On the following Monday at school, I saw Phillip. I was somewhat hurt because he did not show up at my birthday party. I asked him, “Phillip, why didn’t you come?” He said, “I did. They wouldn’t let me in.”
I was 8 years old. The year was 1968. It turns out my father had to go outside and awkwardly explain to Phillip’s father that this establishment was apparently a disturbing remnant of the old ways. Black children were not allowed in.
Fast forward 50 years. I am now a member of the United States Congress, representing Nebraska. After business concludes each day in Congress, there is a period when representatives from each side of the political aisle take time to speak, with Democrats and Republicans taking turns.
One evening, Rep. Al Green, an African American Democrat from Houston, was speaking about Black History Month. Green spoke extensively of his difficult times as a young lawyer facing a segregated courthouse and about important progress on civil rights that had been made in the country, adding there was still a need for more understanding.
As I was preparing my thoughts for my own address next — listening closely as Green was wrapping up his speech — I kept thinking about Phillip. The thought occurred to me to ask if the congressman would “yield” — a courteous way of seeking time to interject something. In this circumstance, it would be unusual, but I couldn’t let the thought go. I decided, “Yes, this is important,” and asked, “Will the gentleman yield?” A bit startled, Green said, “I would be happy to yield to the gentleman.”
I thanked him for his words and told the story of Phillip Brown — but with one new detail: the reaction of my own children when I told them of this event from my childhood. You could see the anguish on their faces. My children were aghast that such a hurtful thing could happen. They said, “Daddy, you have to find Phillip.”
In the meanwhile, Texas Rep. Ted Poe had come onto the floor of the House to get ready for his speech. Poe also asked, “Will the gentleman yield?” And he began to talk about similar memories of the segregation at the courthouse and his sentiments about the progress made. He said to me, “Jeff, you’ve got to find Phillip.”
Upon a recent visit to Baton Rouge, I decided to go back to Westdale Elementary, where Phillip and I attended. It was all-White school in my time, except, as I recall, for the Brown family. I met the principal, who is an African American woman. It is now a school for children with special talents in which most of the students are African American. She was kind enough to take me on a little tour.
Some things had been added, like air conditioning, but much was the same. I walked into one of my old classrooms. Memories flooded over me. It even smelled the same! I asked the principal, “Will you look in the records? Will you help me find Phillip Brown?”
After I wrote this story, my mother told me something else that I never knew about. After the birthday party, Phillip’s mother called my mother, in what my mother describes as the most difficult conversation of her life. Phillip had come to the birthday party dressed in a suit and tie, with a book as a gift. It was John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.
I still haven’t found Phillip Brown. Can you help me find him?
Jeff Fortenberry, of Lincoln, represents Nebraska in the U.S. House of Representatives.