The Way We Were: Thema Brown

By Victoria
Resident Community News

In her almost 50 years working in the Historic District, Thelma Brown drove school carpool even though she didn’t own a car. She used her employers’ cars.  When she began working in the District in 1968, she herself took four buses a day to get to and from her Southside home to her workplace in various Ortega households.
In addition to occasional carpooling, Brown cooked, cleaned, ironed, and babysat. Her starting salary was $4.50 per day. She knew how to perform her varied tasks because she had accompanied her mother Edith Napoleon Brown to her mother’s places of employment.
“My parents had 13 children. It was their hearts’ desire that we each become independent and we did. Benjamin Brown, my father, used to say,’ Every tub sits on its own bottom.’ I had to live a little life before I really understood that quote.”
One person who really encouraged me was my Douglas Anderson teacher, Larrine Phelps. D.A. was the school that most of the Southside African-Americans  attended. Mrs. Phelps was my heroine. She convinced me that I could communicate well. I will always be thankful to her. I often think if a number of folks put their hands through a curtain, I could even now identify her hands.
“Although I was a maid, I did not wear a uniform. This upset one employer who loved my excellent ironing, but wanted me in a uniform and in closed-toe shoes. When I told Claudette  Barker, another of my employers, about this problem, Claudette called the woman and fired her. Not me, her. Claudette is one of my favorite people in the world.
Yes, things changed over the decades. While one early employer insisted that I say,’Yes, Ma’m and No Ma’m’ another told me to call her by her first name. ‘Mrs. Charbonett is my former mother-in-law,’ said Caroline Charbonett, ‘I’m Caroline, Thelma.’
I worked for lots of different folks over the years. Indeed, one of the best things was that it became possible to disagree with folks politically and remain friends. My work usually required that I work during the holidays although I could ask for them off if I agreed to take a pay cut. Sometimes I met famous folks like Bob Hayes, the track star, and Robert F. Kennedy, the Attorney General. In 2004, I worked 365 days — no days off.
I’ve always considered it a blessing that I could work hard. My life changed in 2011 when I broke my hip. I’ve since had a replacement that had to be reversed and I am waiting for another surgery. Some of my former employers — Karen Bryant, John Shields and some anonymous others — went together and paid off my mortgage, so I would not lose my house. That is a huge worry off my mind.
While I am waiting for surgery I’m doing a little ironing on a low ironing board. I’m also repotting dish gardens because I hate to see the plants trapped together in an environment that does not suit them all. I believe in doing what I can do.  God has blessed me and I want pass it on.”

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