Lt. Sylvanus Brown: “Felt it was his duty to defend his country.”

A Black WWI Officer:

by: Lenore T. Adkins Special to the AFRO
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First Lt. Sylvanus S. Browne put his country over the politics of the day, serving two tours in the U.S. Army as a Buffalo Soldier and as support personnel during World War I, only to return to racism at home.

“He felt it was his duty to defend his country… and so that’s pretty much the sentiment that he and most of his sons had,” his granddaughter, Lovie Browne Tarver, 56, of Bowie, Maryland, told the AFRO.

Browne, who was 96 when he died in 1981, was born in Henderson, Kentucky — nearly 20 years after the end of slavery.

He joined the U.S. Army in 1908, following his older brother, Julian into the service. Browne spent the next five years in Oklahoma and San Antonio, Texas as a marshal with the Buffalo Soldiers. As a marshal, Browne was responsible for keeping the peace between Native Americans and the White settlers who were encroaching on their land.

Because the military was segregated in those days, Browne served with the all-Black 9th Cavalry Regiment. The U.S. Armed Forces wouldn’t start integrating until after President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order in 1948 to end segregation.

A few years after his stint with the Buffalo Soldiers In 1917, Browne went to officer training school at Fort Des Moines in Iowa — the Army’s first training ground for Black officers.  The fort accepted 1,200 Black officers and graduated 639 men — Browne was one of 329 men to graduate as a first lieutenant.

First Lt. Sylvanus Browne (handlebar mustache) at the Colored Officer Training Camp in Des Moines, Iowa 1917. (Courtesy Photo)

“They were very patriotic and wanted to protect the country and so that was part of the reason that he went in that second time and plus, he had the opportunity to become an officer,” Tarver said.

From there, the Army deployed Browne to France for World War I, where his job was keeping track of supplies, ammunition and assignments given to other troops, Tarver said. Her grandfather found France to be quite liberating because he wasn’t under the yoke of Jim Crow laws.

“African Americans were more readily accepted in France and so some of the things that we couldn’t do here, like the water fountain thing, and those things that you remember from the civil rights era, those things weren’t an issue there,” Tarver said.

His year-long service overseas took him away from his new wife, Lovie Lee Browne and the three sons they had at the time in Texas— the couple would go on to have a total of six children. Browne took great pleasure in shopping for his wife in Paris and bought her several hats while he was stationed in France. She couldn’t wait to wear them to make her the talk of the town.

“My own darling boy, my beautiful cap received and oh honey, but it’s pretty,” she wrote in a letter dated October 2, 1918. “And I am simply crazy about it. And oh, how I love you and thank you, mine own Honey Boy.”

Browne talked about the Alamo and the wide expanse of space in San Antonio with his granddaughter, but never shared violent wartime anecdotes, she said.

“My grandfather looked at the girls in our family as being delicate,” Tarver said. “He treated my grandmother as if she were a piece of Dresden China that he handled very delicately and so that’s the way he treated women in our family.”

From Texas, the family relocated to New Jersey in 1920 to escape racism in the South. Once there, Browne worked as a post office supervisor in nearby Philadelphia, where he faced racism on the job by being written up for minor infractions, his granddaughter said.

For Browne, racism persisted at least into the 1960s and he continued to demand equal treatment.

For example, when he became pastor of Second Baptist Church in Paulsboro, New Jersey and a local bank refused to issue mortgages to Black congregants from his and other area churches, Browne snapped into action. He and a coalition of pastors marched and Browne threatened to close the bank accounts the church maintained there, Tarver said. The bank relented and began issuing mortgages to Blacks, Tarver said.

“My grandfather was a man of faith, but he was also a man of strength and of order,” Tarver said.

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