Marshall Brown: Washington, D.C. Historian

Marshall Brown sits on a stool at a raised high table at Ben’s Next Door, on U Street NW in Washington, D.C. Brown has dark brown skin, dark brown eyes and his glasses are perched high on his nose. He sports a brown leather jacket and a black sweater underneath. On the top of his head he wears a black hat with the words “Paris” written in black above “France,” which is written in red. In between speaking, he collects his thoughts before talking with the passion of a reverend, but his eyes remain unmoving with laserlike intensity.

“What got me through this was family,” said Brown, 65, as he takes a break from eating a plate of four ribs. “You hear me talk about family in general. That is the passion. That is the only reason I’m spending time with you now. Girls come and go, money comes and goes, ideologies come and go, jobs come and go but your kids (and family) are there forever. ”

Marshall Brown serves as the historian for the historic Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C. He greets groups who visit the restaurant and chronicles the history of U Street and the role that the restaurant plays in the community. He also shares his own personal story of overcoming adversity. Even through all of his hardships and troubles, Brown matured and is well grounded today. Brown always had one constant to pick him up off of his feet whenever he was down: family.

Brown does not have an official job title. During the day he will show up at the U Street establishment to tell the story of the neighborhood and also his own personal life. “I have been going here for 50 years and I was one of the original customers who would come in here,” said Brown. “I was semi-retired and they were expanding and beginning to have a lot people from out of town who would come here. They needed someone who would tell the history of the place. I didn’t think I could do it. I didn’t know what to say.” Don’t let Brown fool you. Although he was nervous and unsure of himself at the beginning of his job at Ben’s, two years ago, he is a perfect person for the job.

Marshall is a man of conviction and passion when he speaks to large groups at Ben’s Chili Bowl, or even when talking to someone one-on-one. Groups normally sit in the back of the restaurant where there is a larger area and more tables for people to sit. When he enters the room he quickly grabs the attention of his audience by speaking with a strong message.

“Marshall Brown is a passionate man who has been through a roller coaster in his life and still exudes great joy and strength,” says Professor Iris Krasnow, who has introduced many semesters of journalism students to Ben’s Chili Bowl and to their spokesperson Brown. “What I love about him, and what the students seem to gravitate towards, is that he is a real person, a passionate person, who is not afraid to tell it straight and is not afraid to show his emotions. His energy is enormous.”

Brown recounts the history of the restaurant, which was founded in 1958 by Ben and Virginia Ali. He describes the U Street scene, which in the 1950’s was known as “Black Broadway,” and some of the individuals who came to perform. Famous musical artists such as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis, are just some of the people that Brown highlights. “We have so many tourists coming to Ben’s Chili Bowl, who know nothing about the history of the area,” said Virginia Ali, who still is the owner of the restaurant till this day.            “Marshall is so familiar with that and the history is so important. The African American community is not as it was back then and we want to carry on the oral history, through Mr. Brown, to keep the history alive.”

Brown’s oral history did not develop overnight. He learned to shape his discourse in a way that appealed to all of the members of his audience. “You have to think about it as a conversation that you are trying to have with someone,” said Brown. “I talk about God. I talk a lot of family. Everybody can relate to family whether you are Chinese, Israeli no matter who you are and that is what this place is about. I talk about falling down and getting back up I talk about my own story and they like that because everybody likes to hear about personal pain because they all got it in their own lives and usually it’s a good situation to motivate people.”

Brown was born in Southampton County, Virginia, which is located in the southern part of the state. Brown never met his father and for much of his childhood, he was separated from his mother. From Southampton, he would move to New York, where he would spend the next four or five years with his aunt. He would then reconnect with his mother, Nelson Rockefeller as a maid, and she would take him to Lakewood, New Jersey, which Brown would describe as “a small Jewish town in the middle of the central part of New Jersey closer to the shore.”

The neighborhood he grew up in was predominately white and he was the only black person in his high school. He would move on to Central State College in Ohio. That is where Brown would shift into a life in politics and fighting for freedom during the Civil Rights movement.

“One day I would wake up after being drunk all night long being a good college student,” joked Brown while chuckling. “I would see a leaflet under the door and it said ‘Freedom Now’ for people to come work in the Freedom Projects in Mississippi. They had a number to call to get on the bus and before I knew it I was in the great state of Mississippi working with the student nonviolent coordinating committee.” There Brown would work alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and other groups in the area to help African-Americans to get the right to vote in Mississippi. He was just beginning his career in politics. “It was like a bug. It just bit me,” said Brown.

Eventually Brown would leave and come to Washington, D.C. and join a group called Free D.C. to fight for statehood to be granted to the District of Columbia. That is where Brown would meet up with Marion Barry who became the mayor of the District of Columbia from January of 1979 to January of 1991 and then again from January of 1995 to January of 1999. Brown was an aide in Barry’s administration for over a dozen years. “There were the good days and there were bad days,” said Brown. “Good days because he did so much, bad days because of the few things he did bad he would be held accountable for all his life.” After moving on from Barry’s campaign, Brown would assist Jesse Jackson in his campaign for President in 1984.

`           However, Marshall Brown’s life in politics is not where he had to overcome the adversity that he features in his discussion. Brown had his first son, Che, when he was 21 years old and then had his second child, Kwame, two years later. Kwame, is currently the chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia who is currently involved in a scandal in which he ordered two luxury Lincoln Navigator vehicles that costly nearly $2,000 a month to lease.

Brown acknowledged that the trials and tribulations of his son are constantly on his mind. However, his ability to overcome adversity in his own life has helped him mature and grow as a father. “I matured because through girl friends and friends and watching their fathers, I took a little piece of everything and put it together for myself because I didn’t know (how to be a father),” said Brown. Brown divorced his first wife and then remarried. With his second wife he had a daughter named Njeri. Brown’s sons would eventually come to live with him and he would take care of them in addition to taking care of his new family.

“(My) two sons were from the same mother and the mother I didn’t get along. I was doing (expletive) up shit and she was getting (expletive) up herself and we didn’t we just had different views on life in the world. The mother of my daughter would be different. She was younger so I felt better and she had a child and I was like ‘O my God.’ It was a daughter so I was really happy. I didn’t want to have another son with two sons I didn’t want that shit. And I knew she would be a different child from a different marriage. But my ideology, my growth as a parent a father in the world, everything was coming upon me. All that shit was coming upon me I was like ‘O my God.’ My second wife didn’t like my first wife they just couldn’t click and they just never could click.” Brown would eventually get divorced again but he continued to rely on his children for support and he found a new family at Ben’s Chili Bowl in 2009.

On his first day on the job as the official Washington, D.C. historian for Ben’s Chili Bowl, he overheard one of the members of the group talking about the restaurant. “My first group was from Atlanta, Georgia. I found out it was a black group from a Middle School and a little girl was on the cell phone and said, ‘I’m at Ben’s Chili Bowl, but let me hit you back later on because I’m at this little hot dog stand,’ and I said ‘wait a minute this ain’t no hot dog stand. This is history! You don’t even know it but I got to tell it to you.’ But I didn’t know how to tell it. Eventually I would develop the story about the history of Ben’s Chili Bowl.”

Brown, who is a grandparent to five grandkids, four boys and one girl, has undergone more than a normal share of adversity. However, family and friends have sustained Ben’s Chili Bowl as a D.C. icon since 1958 and continue to support Marshall Brown as he matures as a father, a grandfather and as a person. “What drove me was family,” said Brown. “That is why getting divorced not once but twice is hard because it was like a dream that escapes you. But all dreams don’t come true. But it was because I had an ideology and a philosophy and I had a belief. That is what sustained me through all of this.”

Stephen Hobbs