For George T. Brown to posthumously receive the rare Congressional Medal of Honor would be enough to make Hempstead proud. But renaming the atrium of Classroom Building A at Hempstead High School after him shows that his influence goes far beyond his bravery as a Montford Point Marine.
Montford Point was the shabby boot camp in North Carolina where young Black men aspiring to become Marines were sent from 1942 to 1949, after which they went to Parris Island, South Carolina, or Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Brown, a native of Savannah, Georgia, was one of eight children. Directly after graduating high school, he headed for the Marines, withstood racist treatment from White drill sergeants at Montford Point, and then served honorably in World War II.
After completing his military career, Brown attended Tuskegee Institute, where he met his wife, Dorothy Coles Brown. Both became educators in Louisiana, and then headed north.
In 1970, Brown was hired to be Long Island’s first Black dean at Hempstead High School, where he served until 1990. Dorothy Coles Brown taught in the Manhasset public school system.
Their daughter, Olga Brown-Young, followed her parents’ path. After a career in journalism, she taught English at A.G.B. Schultz Middle School, became the dean there, and then was dean at the high school, where she occupied her father’s office. After a stint as Hempstead High assistant principal, she retired. She is now on the Hempstead School Board, which she served for a period as president.
As far as her father’s military life was concerned, said Brown-Young, “He never really spoke about it. But he was proud.” In fact, he had the Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fi,” Latin for “always faithful,” tattooed on one arm.
“I was with my father once and we passed a young White man on the street who had a Semper Fi pin,” said Brown-Young. “My father said to him, ‘Semper Fi,’ and he stopped and they talked about living by the code of faithfulness. My dad was in his 60s and the man was about 25, but to see the camaraderie between the two of them was very moving.”
Brown died in 2017. But the camaraderie he manifested was very much part of last Thursday’s ceremony. In addition to the dignitaries present, a contingent of Marines came, as did retired and active soldiers from other branches of the military, and Hempstead High Schools’ Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps class.
The retired Army veteran who teaches Hempstead High’s JROTC courses, First Sgt. Keith Woods, emceed the ceremony. American Legionnaires Percy Watson and Anthony Thomas looked on, as did retired Sgt. Major William H. Downes, 89, of Roosevelt, accompanied by his daughter Robin. José Trujillo and Walter Wells of the National Montford Point Marine Association outlined the history of Montford Point and presented a fascinating video of Montford Point Marines explaining their experiences of overcoming bias to serve their nation.
The medal was then presented to Brown-Young and her sister, Bimini Brown-Hayes, with other honors. But the commemoration did not stop there. On Tuesday morning, the atrium of Classroom Building A at Hempstead High School was renamed for Brown.
A former student and two teaching colleagues spoke briefly of the administrator and mentor who was so widely respected and loved.
Ricky Cooke, Sr., a director at the Hempstead Village Community Development Agency, graduated from Hempstead High in 1976.
“There was one person who would keep us students in line,” said Cooke, who grew up fatherless, “and that was Mr. Brown. During the time that I was here it was very important to me to have role models like him.”
“George Brown was tremendous,” said former mayor Don Ryan, who taught business at Hempstead High during Brown’s tenure as dean. “The Marine Corps in Hempstead HIgh had quite an influence, because not only was Brown a member of the Marine Corps, but Charles Mills, who was the principal, was also a Marine.”
“Mr. Brown was kind, he was gentle, he was friendly,” said former Hempstead High teacher Patricia Brown (no relation), “but the students respected him because he didn’t tolerate any nonsense. He showed respect to the staff, the administrators, and everyone who worked with him.”
As the two daughters of George T. Brown cut the ribbon to unveil the plaque dedicating the atrium area to him, applause and cheers resonated through the common area, a fitting response to the man who had strengthened so many around him during his lifetime.