Congressman Jeff Fortenberry

Representing the 1st District of Nebraska

Fort Report: Phillip Brown

Aug 19, 2017
Fort Report

When I was in 3rd grade, I had a friend named Phillip Brown. My birthday party was nearing, and it was common at the time to invite all the boys in the class to a party. And I did invite everyone, including Phillip, who was a particularly special friend. The party was at a roller skating rink. As I was opening presents, my father came up to me and whispered in my ear, “Jeffrey, is Phillip a black boy?” I said, “Yes.” Then I didn’t think about it anymore.

On the following Monday at school, I saw Phillip. I was somewhat hurt because he had not come to my birthday party. I asked him, “Phillip, why didn’t you come?” He said, “I did. They wouldn’t let me in.”

I was eight years old. The year was 1968. It turns out that my father had to go outside, talk to Phillip’s father, and awkwardly explain to him that this particular establishment was apparently a disturbing remnant of the old ways. Black children were not allowed in.

After business concludes each day in Congress, there is a dedicated period when representatives from each side of the political aisle take time to speak. Democrats can speak and then Republicans, or vice versa. Each side takes turns. One evening, Congressman Al Green, an African-American representative from Houston, was speaking about Black History Month. Congressman Green spoke extensively of both his difficult times as a young lawyer facing a segregated courthouse, and about important progress on civil rights that had been made in the country, adding that there was still the need for more understanding.

As I was preparing my thoughts for my own address next, listening closely as Congressman Green was wrapping up his speech, I kept thinking about Phillip. The thought occurred to me to ask if the Congressman would “yield”—a courteous way of seeking time to interject something. In this circumstance, it would be unusual, but I couldn’t let the thought go.  I decided, "Yes, this is important,” and said, “Will the gentleman yield?” A bit startled at first, Congressman Green said, “I would be happy to yield to the gentleman.”

So, I thanked him for his words and told the story of Phillip Brown--but with one new detail: the reaction of my own children when I told them of this event from my childhood.  You could see the anguish on their faces.  My children were aghast that such a hurtful thing could happen. They said, “Daddy, you have to find Phillip.”

In the meanwhile, another representative from Texas named Ted Poe had come onto the floor of the House to get ready for his speech, and he began to listen. Congressman Poe then asked, “Will the gentleman yield?” And he began to talk about similar memories of the segregation at the courthouse, and his sentiments about the progress made. He said to me, “Jeff, you’ve got to find Phillip.”

I had occasion recently to go back to the little school that I attended (an all-white school in my time, except, as I recall, for the Brown family). I met the principal, who is an African-American woman.  It is now a school for children with special talents in which most of the students are African-American.  She was kind enough to take me on a little tour.  Some things had been added like air conditioning, but much was the same.   I walked into one of my old classrooms. Memories flooded over me. It even smelled the same! I asked the principal, “Will you look in the records? Will you help me find Phillip Brown?”