DIONNE BLASINGAME: Ms. Johnnie Brown, thank you so much for allowing me to come and interview you. I’m Dionne Blasingame from Kennesaw State University. I’m working with Dr. LeeAnn Lands concerning the Peoplestown and Emmaus House project. So, I would like for you to introduce yourself.
JOHNNIE BROWN: Mrs. Johnnie R. Brown, a former volunteer at Emmaus House.
BLASINGAME: Can you tell me about your first experiences at the Emmaus House?
BROWN: Yes, I remember them quite well. I was introduced to Emmaus House by Ms. Muriel Lokey. And, I’m sure that her name is quite familiar in this project. There’s a building on the campus named for her at this time. Our daughters were classmates in high school. We met each other, and she invited me to participate in the activities at Emmaus House. It was the beginning of a long story.
BLASINGAME: Now were you living in Peoplestown at the time?
BLASINGAME: You only came to understand or know about the Emmaus House through Ms. Muriel Lokey?
BROWN: I came to know and understand about one program, and that was through the delivery of surplus meals. Surplus groceries, as it was then, was prior to food stamps. You actually picked groceries up from a warehouse and delivered them to eligible persons. Mrs. Lokey was in charge of that program. She initially invited me to participate in just that function. But after having met the priest, Austin Ford, I learned about other possibilities for volunteer work at Emmaus House, and that’s where the story started [chuckles].
BLASINGAME: Did you know Ms. Lokey before she invited you? Was there some type of connection?
BROWN: The only connection we had was our daughters were classmates in high school.
BLASINGAME: Can you remember anything specifically about the services, or your experiences at the Emmaus House?
BROWN: I think that following the grocery delivery program, the next experience that I had was the organization of the Poverty Rights Office. We met for several days at a retreat facility and organized what is now known as the Poverty Rights Office. I think it’s still in existence. It’s been a long time since I had any connection with it. But, following the organization of it, I spent several days per week working in the Poverty Rights Office. We dealt with all types of problems that would confront people of low income, or low access to the system, that would make their lives better.
BLASINGAME: Can you think of anything specifically that happened with the Property Rights Office or a particular incident that was important? Something that you remember in particular?
BROWN: No, I don’t remember anything particular. Each day was filled with unbelievable incidents, and I don’t know that I could select one.
I think that I began my positive association with the citizens of Peoplestown and Summer Hill [with this incident]. One day, outside the Poverty Rights Office, a man passed out. I called the ambulance, and the ambulance came immediately and took care of [him]. The neighbors had gathered around, [as well as] Mrs. Matthews, who was the president of the association for the neighborhood (I don’t remember the exact name right now–it may come to me). She was president and she was a leader, and a great leader. I think it was the beginning of her accepting me as a part of the positive side of Emmaus House. She said, “If anybody can get an ambulance in this neighborhood this quickly, you need to stay.” [Chuckles.] And our relationship grew from that point.
But the neighbors many times were suspicious of me because I was [from] outside of the neighborhood. In that group, I was the minority. Not a minority to be recipients of the Emmaus House programs and projects, but a minority to the volunteers.
BLASINGAME: Would you say that was more of a class issue — the division [that] was there?
BROWN: I don’t know why that happens. It still happens now. You meet it – where if all of the volunteers in any situation, not only Emmaus House are of one description, and then somebody comes in who is not of that description, then there’s suspicion.
BLASINGAME: There’s suspicion. I understand.
BROWN: “Why are you here?” a man [asked] one time. You may eliminate this. I attended some type of night activity there, and when I walked in the door, this gentleman was standing beside the desk. He turned around. He kind of pointed to me as he looked at Mrs. Matthews, and then he said, “I didn’t know we had one” [chuckles].
BLASINGAME: That’s interesting. Well, you said that you called the ambulance, and the ambulance came. Why do you think that they came when you called, and why do you think that the ambulance, and possibly the police, do not respond. Why do you think that is?
BROWN: I don’t know. I can’t even imagine why one life would be more important than another life. These are things that happen. And, these are things that you learn to expect, but you don’t accept. I remember very well, that’s what Mrs. Matthews said, and just use your imagination [chuckles].
BLASINGAME: With the Emmaus House and Peoplestown, would you say that the Emmaus House was a positive influence on Peoplestown?
BLASINGAME: And what about the children of Emmaus House. Do you have any experiences with the children? Any memories with the children?
BROWN: I think the first experience I had with the children was a summer school program that they had, where the Atlanta public schools provided one school, where the children did summer school. I worked very hard. I think the first summer I did mostly music and drama. It was hard work. I enjoyed every minute of it, and we were successful, so that makes it [worthwhile].
And, then following that, the next thing I remember was afternoon programs – where the children would come after school. I worked with all phases of that – reading, whatever they needed in their school work – and music, singing, vocal music. General music, let’s put it that way. Then, I worked with a teenage program that was spearheaded by Gene Ferguson. He gave me full reign, and we just developed a program that we felt was needed. And, I think we were successful. I was very impressed with Gene, and very impressed with how he supported me. And, then, at that time, there were a lot of college students who would come and spend time there to receive credits at their colleges. And there were other volunteers that were in an educational facility.
[Loud Noises From Outside the Door]
BLASINGAME: Okay, let me just close that door, let me pause.
[Loud noises are heard outside the door. The recorder is turned off, and the interviewer closes the door. A small part of the conversation was not recorded. The recorder is not restarted for approximately two minutes. During this time, Ms. Brown stated that Mr. Gene Ferguson was instrumental to the Emmaus House. He allowed her to format a program independently. Unlike other volunteers, he was able to communicate with the children on their level. She recounted an incident at Spelman College. Mr. Ferguson was displeased because the children of Emmaus House were not dressed appropriately for the event. In turn, he ‘chastised’ Ms. Brown for the oversight. Then, Ms. Brown recounted a specific volunteer from California. At this point, the interviewer adjusted the recorder, and the following conversation takes place].
Okay, so you’re speaking about the woman that actually comes down from California. How long has she been coming down? How many years would you say she’s been coming down?
BROWN: She came to Atlanta when she was eighteen. I don’t know how old she was when she left. But she’s approximately fifty-two now. That’s a lot of years. When she comes and visits Emmaus House, and attends services there because one of those friendships have remained dear to her. That family still attends Emmaus House, and so she comes quite often. The mother, in that family was ill not too long ago, and she came and spent some time with her. She still feels very close to that community.
BLASINGAME: Now how did she become a part of that community?
BROWN: I don’t know. She was attending University Without Walls, and, as a part of her study, she came.
BLASINGAME: She was a volunteer there at the Emmaus House?
BLASINGAME: When the college students came, did they actually stay on the Emmaus campus?
BROWN: Yes, they did.
BLASINGAME: Were there any issues with them staying on the Emmaus campus?
BROWN: Not that I know of.
BLASINGAME: I think unfortunately we may have missed some of our conversation about Mr. Ferguson as well, it [the recorder] wasn’t recording. So I do want to revisit that. Mr. Gene Ferguson, you said that he was a very interesting man. He was able to actually communicate with the children in a very unique way. He could reach them on their level, and he always wanted them to put their best foot forward. Now can you tell me about the Spelman incident, once more, because we missed that on the recording?
BROWN: Gene thought that they were not dressed properly to attend that concert, and I caught it.
BLASINGAME: You caught it?
BROWNS: I caught it because he felt that I should have informed him and the young people the type of concert that we were going to. It was a Christmas Carol concert, and because I didn’t properly inform them, they were not dressed up to his standard.
BLASINGAME: And another thing is, you stated that the program that Gene Ferguson gave you full reign, you discussed things with the church, sex, and drugs. Now when people think about Peoplestown now, they tend to think about drugs and lots of children who are not being attended to. But I want you to recap what were your experiences with that in Peoplestown.
BROWN: I had no experience with persons who were using drugs. Not any of our children were alcoholic. I don’t know anything about their sex life; but, as I think back, the children who were in the program the longest, I don’t know of any pregnancies. If there were any, they came after high school, and I didn’t know about them. Some of the children were interested in attending service at Emmaus House. Some of them were interested in attending other churches, and some were not interested in that at all. And we just kept it as to what I believed – not what I was trying to force them to believe – just what I believe. And that’s my philosophy. I can’t tell you what you should do; I can only tell you what I believe. And they had a lot of questions about sex.
BLASINGAME: Were they willing to openly express that in your meetings?
BROWN: Eventually. I talk to them quite openly, and towards the end, they began to open up with their questions. They asked me questions about – I remember specifically – questions about homosexuality.
BROWN: And I gave them my definition, and I remember, so clearly, that this young man said “Oh, that’s what that is.” [Laughs.] He had seen it, but he didn’t understand it.
BLASINGAME: As far as Emmaus House and the community of Peoplestown, what were the services? I know you mentioned the afterschool programs, the Christmas programs. Did they do anything else for not only the children but for the families?
BROWN: Yes, there were always regular activities. I was not a participant in many of the things that were organized for the adults. But for the adults, Father Ford was quite an entertainer. He was always having parties, and the neighbors would be invited. Sometimes he would have whole community parties, and the neighbors would attend those. One I remember specifically was Christmas time. He opened the house up. The lady who passed recently was in total charge of the Christmas gift sale. When she died recently, that’s why it’s on my mind, but she was totally in charge with that, I had nothing to do with that.
BLASINGAME: What was her name?
BROWN: Mary was the first name, but I don’t remember the last name right now.
BLASINGAME: That’s okay.
BROWN: I think her husband still lives.
BLASINGAME: Can you tell me more about the Poverty Rights Office? I know you said that there was something unique that happened there every day. There were a lot of stories.
BROWN: The Poverty Rights Office was organized to listen to and solve, when possible, problems that any of the neighbors may have – rent, gas, light, problems with landlords, any type of everyday problem. That was a place that they could come and express their needs. And it grew, and there eventually were volunteers that would spend a great deal of time. One interesting situation that I had – probably just interesting to me – an elderly lady lost her common-law husband. And he not only had social security, he had pension from the railroad. And, she got in my car, and we drove around over town until we got this satisfied. We had to prove how many years they had lived together. It was necessary to find neighbors who had seen them coming in and out of the same place and could testify that he had lived there. Also, that they had purchased things together. This is the definition of common law; and, in Georgia, common law marriages are recognized. I suppose they still are [chuckles].
BLASINGAME: I think they are. Isn’t it seven years or thirteen, or something like that?
BROWN: I don’t know. I don’t remember the details, but that was fun [laughs].
BLASINGAME: That was fun [laughs]. Are there any more stories that you would like to about your experiences, [in the] twenty-plus years of volunteering with the Emmaus House?
BROWN: I don’t remember a lot of specific things. With the Emmaus House, I think a part of the underlying purpose was that we would make everything available for any citizen and available for the neighbors of Emmaus House. And to change laws, place pressure in the right places – all that was the underlying purpose. And, in the midst of all of this, were the social programs that helped to give children the idea that, “yes they could.”
BLASINGAME: When you say, “pressure in the right places,” I’m assuming you mean social activism? Could you tell me about some of those social activist activities? Sometimes now we tend to forget those, but they were instrumental in where we are today.
BROWN: I don’t know that I can remember specifically why we went any place, but I remember having picketed the capitol, picketed the welfare offices. I think we picketed the education…I’m not sure about that. That may have been something that had to do with the law. We sat in down there at one time. They had something called – oh, I don’t remember – perfect city, city something. We sat in at that office one time. I was never recognized. Whenever the paper recorded the activity, they would say, “A lot of white women and poor black folk.” [Laughs] That left me out. I was neither white nor poor. But I guess if your black and you walk in a picket line—.
BLASINGAME: Yes, the assumptions. That brings me back to the class issue that we alluded to in the beginning. Within the African-American community, there is what we call a black elite, or those who are middle class, and then have a black poor. And sometimes there’s division within our own community based on class alone. Not on race. Not even on gender. Just on class. Now, did you see that at the Emmaus House? Because when we think about Peoplestown, it’s such a diverse community. You have very professional people, and you have very poor people.
BROWN: It wasn’t at that time.
BLASINGAME: It wasn’t? Can you explain? Describe the neighborhood of Peoplestown?
BROWN: The neighborhood was mostly made of low-income.
BLASINGAME: Can you describe the landscape of Peoplestown? What did it look like?
BROWN: It looked like houses that had at one time been middle-class and upper-middle class homes, and they were now mostly rentals. And a lot of them had been divided into apartments and that’s mostly what it was – houses that was once probably called middle-class, upper-middle class, that were now rundown. [They were] not kept well. [In the past] many of them [were] single family dwellings [that now had been] divided into many family dwellings. The building that now houses the chapel, there were about four families in that house. Emmaus House finally bought it, and it is now the chapel.
BLASINGAME: Would you say that the majority of people that you served during your twenty years were [in] single family homes? Would you find two-parent households more often or just one parent households?
BROWN: I don’t know. If I sit here and try very hard to remember specific families with whom I worked, it would be about fifty-fifty – one parent or two parents. That’s a fact. There were a lot of single parent homes, but there were also a lot of two-parent homes.
BLASINGAME: Do you think that the single parent households were the children who were primarily receiving services from Emmaus House, or [a] whole gamut [household types]?
BROWN: No, the whole gamut.
BLASINGAME: You said that you sat in at different places in the city. Was that organized? How many people showed up? You said that in the paper they would only say a bunch of rich white women, poor black women.
BROWN: Poor black people [chuckles].
BLASINGAME: Poor black people [Laughs]. So tell me about when you were sitting in. Anything in particular that happened?
BROWN: No, you just walk the line, and sometime a few faces went in and sat in and sat down on the floor, chairs, as long as they lasted, and then on the floor. There are no incidents when I was there. I was never a part or subjected to any incident.
BLASINGAME: So there was no fear when you did these social activist activities at all?
BROWN: Yes, there was fear. My just deciding to go, there was a little apprehension. But I felt safe. I trusted the people that I was with. There was always fear.
Oh! One time, the street that travels east past the capitol, there are two state buildings across the street from that. And one time, we were walking there before we went inside. We finally went inside that building and sat down. And some man came running out of the building, and it turned out to be the yardman. Somebody had told him that, “they are getting on your flowers out there!” He told me that what he had done was he had run out and turned the water on—not on us [but] on his flowers and shrubbery, I guess trying to keep people off of them. And for some reason, he spoke to me, and said “They told me that y’all were out here on my flowers!” I thought that was funny. There were a lot of interesting incidents. I just remember that there were. I don’t remember a lot of specifics.
BLASINGAME: I appreciate your time, and I don’t want to keep you too long, but I do want to ask you about Peoplestown – about what has happened in the last fifteen or twenty years concerning the Olympics coming in, and the stadium [as well]. Were you there during that time frame? You worked from 1968-1988 so you should have been around.
BROWN: No, I was not very active during that time. I know that there was some unsuccessful protest about displacing so many families to build the stadium. But the stadium was not built before I left. I think that was after I left, but there was a lot of displeasure in evacuating families to build the stadium.
The same thing happen when the civic center was built. I taught at David D. Howard high school, and a lot of our children came from the area where the civic center is now built. It was called Buttermilk Bottom. That has nothing to do with Emmaus House, but it was a sad place to live. Not kept well at all. I think those homes probably were built for low-income people, and the landlords didn’t keep them up. But the same kind of protest against moving all those people out of there to build the civic center, happened when they were building Turner field. Because, if you could imagine, that space took a lot of homes.
BLASINGAME: Yes, and homes that have not been replaced.
BROWN: That’s right. Absolutely. Some of the people moved into existing and newly built homes. What do you call them? Public housing. I understand now that those are being changed.
BLASINGAME: Atlanta no longer has public housing. They’re tearing all of them down.
BROWN: Well, do you know what they said? What was said was that they wanted to create mixed income homes – not just poor income. But it’s my understanding that there are no Section 8 houses, and I have met a lot of people who live in Section 8 properties. If they’re not putting Section 8 properties in these new developments – that’s sad. That’s off the subject. I’m sorry. You get me to talking [laughs].
BLASINGAME: That’s okay, I enjoy talking to you. As far as Emmaus House and Peoplestown, you stated that you didn’t live in the community. However, you volunteered there for over twenty years. What kept you there?
BROWN: I think what we say is that, “Oh, I felt that I could do some positive things.” Just to simplify it, I could do something good. But I think that we don’t do anything that we don’t get something in return. And it’s just something that pleased my mindset, and I stuck with it.
BLASINGAME: Twenty years is a long time. Is there anything else? [I have] kept you for about 40 minutes, so I don’t want to keep you too long. Is there anything else you want to convey about Peoplestown, a memory that you know that no one else would know but you?
BROWN: Did I mention that I was a Sunday school teacher?
BLASINGAME: You did not.
BROWN: A Sunday school teacher. And, for a period of time, I was the superintendent of the Sunday school. I served on the vestry of the church. I think we mentioned that I played the piano, and trained the chorus. But I enjoyed working with the students who came for whatever reason – volunteer or to fulfill some of the requirements at their universities. I enjoyed working with Father Ford. I felt that he was sincere in his efforts there. And that it wasn’t always easy, but he never gave up. But, in addition to that, he was the priest at the chapel. He took that quite seriously – baptized the babies and buried the dead. I was glad to be a part of that because I was doing the music. There’ve only been two musicians there: Vandora Scott, who is there now, and myself. Vandora’s been there about 20 years [laughs].
BLASINGAME: Now you mentioned Father Ford being sincere. Another person stated that they felt that the people who came after Father Ford did not necessarily have the community’s best interest at heart.
BROWN: I don’t know them. I left before Father Ford did.
BLASINGAME: So you were there primarily during his administration.
BROWN: That’s right.
BLASINGAME: Can you just expand on that because he was very involved in social activism, wasn’t he?
BROWN: Yes, he was. Absolutely.
BLASINGAME: Can you recount?
BROWN: It is my opinion that he wanted to let the system work for everybody. The system only works for a few people. I think we’re being very naïve when we don’t know that. And it’s my opinion that he would like to have made things work for all of God’s children. And he worked very hard at that. I don’t understand everything that he was doing. I don’t understand all of his purposes or reasoning, but it’s my opinion that he was sincere – that he was serious.
BLASINGAME: Did he organize the groups, or did he participate in the activities as well?
BROWN: He was the head. He did it.
BLASINGAME: What about the children, did the children ever participate in the social activist activities?
BROWN: I think they did, but I was never with them. But I think there were times where they would carry children to certain activities, but I don’t have any information about that.
BLASINGAME: Well, thank you for your time. Is there anything else before we end that you would like to talk about?
BROWN: No, I’m realistic about the limitations of our efforts, but I’m pleased with many of our accomplishments. I would like to have done more. Emmaus House had a great dream. I participated in mostly the on-site programs; just every now and then I would show up for one of the protests – very seldom. But I’m sorry that those protests did not accomplish more.
BLASINGAME: What were the limitations that you said you “were realistic about your limitations”? Can you expand or elaborate on that? Because it’s really vague, and I have a sense of what you’re saying, but I want to make sure.
BROWN: I think that the system is so organized, that we don’t really understand what we are up against when we start to buck the system. An example is the federal government. I think that we don’t have a clue as to what makes the federal government tick. And when you’re out trying to influence the federal, the state, the county and the city government – that’s an awesome task. And a man with two legs, two arms, two eyes – one man is not able to do very much. I think that a lady named Frances Pauley, a lady named Muriel Lokey. Muriel Lokey’s husband lost his seat in the Georgia legislature because she fought to keep the public school open. When integration came—she’s a rich white lady—she fought to keep the public schools open. Her husband suffered because of it. Now you know all of the underlying politics, I would never understand it. I could give some opinions that may be right, may be wrong. So I would hesitate to give them. But I think that what’s going on in Washington now is an example. That the politics are so complex, we don’t know we can only guess as to why not everybody would want everybody to have access to healthcare.
BLASINGAME: I refer to it as institutional racism or institutional policy barriers. But do you think – I know you spoke on Ms. Lokey – her husband suffered [because of ] the goodwill that they tried to do for Peoplestown [and the] public school systems.
BROWN: She lived in Buckhead. Her husband was a prominent successful lawyer, who had won a seat in the Georgia legislature. I doubt if she ever spent a night over there. I never spent a night over there.
BLASINGAME: But as far as volunteering, they were out of the Peoplestown/Emmaus House initiative to help the people of Peoplestown.
BROWN: What do you mean?
BLASINGAME: They were instrumental parts in volunteering for the Emmaus House to help Peoplestown. Do you think other people suffered, like Father Ford, who were trying to help the poor – those without a voice? Do you think that they suffered in any way?
BROWN: I don’t know. I think that you suffer when you begin to successfully attack the system. Father Ford did that. Muriel Lokey and her husband Hamilton Lokey did that. I think that he was pulled into it by her. Another lady, I think Frances Pauley did that. I’m sure that Frances also suffered some of the things that Mrs. Lokey and Father Ford did, but I don’t know of any specifics for her. But she died not too long ago, and something was written in the newspaper that I wish you could find out from somebody else what it was about what she was called by the legislature, because she was always down at the legislature in their faces. Always. You find that out.
BLASINGAME: I’ll find that out, and then I’ll call you about it.
BROWN: Well, the article was in the newspaper obituary. A statement about it, what her nickname was, because she was always in some legislature’s face.
BLASINGAME: Well, again I thank you for your time, I truly appreciate it, and we’ll go ahead and fill out the paperwork. I’m going to go ahead and turn off the recorder.
BROWN: All right.
BLASINGAME: Now do you have any questions about the paperwork at all?
BLASINGAME: Okay, we will go ahead and stop.
BLASINGAME: Okay, Ms. Brown. You stated that there is something very important concerning our interview, and I wanted to give you the opportunity to discuss that.
BROWN: The very last activity in which I participated in Emmaus House was with the senior citizens program. It’s very important to me. Every Wednesday they met. I think [every] Monday Wednesday, and Friday, but every Wednesday I taught bible class – senior citizens bible class. It was so fulfilling, and the love and attention that I received from those members sustains me some now. I think it was the fact that I studied the bible. They were instrumentally getting me to study the bible, but I became ill while teaching that class during the time. I stopped teaching the class because I became ill. And the love that they sent to me and that I felt from them sustains me even today.
Interview with: Johnnie Brown
Interviewed by: Dionne Blasingame
Location: Ms. Brown’s home
Transcribed by: Rachel Cronin
Sound Recording: WAV
Edited by: Dionne Blasingame/LeeAnn Lands