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Gloria Ann Thomas Brown: Resident since 1953

Editor’s note: This is a partial excerpt from Neighbors: Oral History from Madera, California Volume 2 by Lawrence F. Lihosit, a local historian. It is available at Maildrop and G.B.S. on Howard and on Books.

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Born seventh of 11 on July 21, 1951, in Los Angeles, Gloria Ann Thomas Brown and her family moved to Madera, where her grandparents lived in 1953. She attended the old Pershing Elementary School, Millview Elementary School, Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Madera High School (North Campus). She began work early and eventually entered public service in the law enforcement sector: administrative clerk, dispatcher and correctional officer. Now retired after a career that spanned more than three decades, Ms. Brown has been the president of the local NAACP since 2011 and recently led a peaceful march to protest police brutality in other cities. She raised five children in Madera.

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My parents left Los Angeles and came to Madera, working the fields. My family rented an old single-story wooden home south of C Street near Sierra Vista. My father’s mother who was born in Gonzales, Texas lived around the corner on the street behind us. Her sister, born in Guadalupe County, Texas, lived two doors down from her (both rural counties are located east of San Antonio and today are transversed by Interstate 10). My father checked on her every day.

They did a lot of cooking together and we’d always go around there because they did different things. My grandmother had worked as a cook for an attorney’s family in Waco. She made everything you can imagine. She made pound cake from scratch, all kinds of hash, corn bread, greens, cow peas, black-eyed peas, chicken and dressing. Her sister always tried to copy her cooking. They argued, my grandmother saying that her sister made a two-pound cake. We all worked together and ate all the time. The house still stands.

We worked the fields as children too. We picked as a group for a man named Walls who was the contractor. If our 100-pound sacks weren’t full enough, my father filled them. Then he took them down to dump and bring our sacks back. My mother held my brother and her sack. My father shouldered her sack, one on each shoulder and filled up his sack, then my mother’s. It was amazing what my father did. That’s how we got food, clothes, anything. The cotton boles cut the tips of our fingertips.

My sister and I went to the old Pershing School on Yosemite. It looked just like the old school house on Petrucci’s property on Howard Road (today Petrucci’s BBQ). It was an old school house with more than one class. When they shut down that school, I went to Millview. There were more Blacks in Madera at that time, quite a few. Living here got so hard that many who still had family in the southern states went back. Their family elders were there and they never came back. Many of them came to Madera together and left together.

Many Afro-Americans lived outside of town in Fairmead (11 miles northwest of Madera). At a school board historical meeting, I heard that the problem was the water rights. They didn’t want Blacks to have water rights. There were certain areas of town that they wouldn’t sell to the Blacks. The Blacks had crops and the Whites wanted them to fail. So, a lot of them ended out in Dixieland (about 10 miles northwest of Madera).

Later, my father went to work for Sherman Thomas. We lived over by Yosemite and Fig at that time and used to walk to Millview School (about one half mile). My mother also walked to her day job, cleaning homes for elderly women near Madera High School (about one and a half miles).

After graduation I was part of the NYC program- the Neighborhood Youth Corps. I typed and filed cards at the police department. The police department used to be on D Street. Today it’s the Union Bank. When the police job ran out, they put me in the library to do the cards and help bind books. Then, I was a short order cook at the Al-Ru drive-in on Gateway. It was owned by an Italian family. The specialty they had was twelve hamburgers for a dollar. People came up there and ordered thirty-six hamburgers and they wanted them in three minutes. After about seven months, I went to work as a teacher’s aide for Madera Unified School District during the day and the I.R.S. at night taking care of refund paperwork. I can’t remember not working.

In the 1970s my mother worked for Madera Glass. She worked on the paint specialty line from four o’clock in the morning with a guy from Chowchilla. She thought he was a nice guy. The Madera Tribune printed a frontpage picture of him in full Ku Klux Klan regalia and identified him by name as the Grand Dragon. They were still burning crosses in the Fresno River bottom. This threw my mother into a whirlwind because she was raised in Mississippi and remembered all the issues that her family had dealt with the KKK. She continued to work, scared to death of them. She didn’t know what might happen next. She became very quiet because was scared for herself and her kids. We were told to be quiet. Don’t say nothing to nobody. Go to work, school. Come straight home and be still.

The county jail hired me. It was an old two-story concrete building on Sixth Street between G and H streets. There was an earthquake and the building rocked and rocked. It was weird to see those thick walls move. We thought the doors would pop open and bend. The inmates on the second floor were screaming, the people working there were screaming. We opened the back door to make sure it didn’t jam. We were told to get all the records and after, we were to get all the inmates out.

The CHP (California Highway Patrol) officers were coming in and telling me that they needed good dispatchers. They thought I’d be a good one.

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To be continued.

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