One of the concerns of families in Barstow is having something for their children to do in their free time. As with a lot of issues this isn’t a new problem. Mary Brown had the same concern fifty years ago in her neighborhood on Riverside Drive and she did something about it.
Brown was born Mary Joseph on April 12, 1919 in Jeanerette, Louisiana. Around 1920, her part of the family moved to Beumont, Texas due to flooding at their home. Mary was the second generation after slavery.
Mary Joseph grew up in Beumont and went to a segregated high school, Carlton Pollard, which is no longer running. She remembered that not only could the black children not go to the white school, they were expected to not walk on the same side of the street as the school.
She had eight siblings in her family. Her father, Steven Joseph, had at total of 22 children from other women and his wife. Most of children, hers or not, were taken care of by Mary’s mother, Nettie. Probably because she was worn out, Mary’s mother died in 1934 and thus began Mary’s travels.
After her mother’s funeral, one of Mary’s aunts, Louise Church, who lived in McCloud, California took Mary with her to help in her aunt’s household. She lived with the aunt for around a year and then moved in with half-sister, Lillian Wilson, in Weed, California. Her half-sister was a part of a group that worked at various sawmills in Northern California so Mary and her family would move fairly regularly following work. Some of the towns she lived in were Quincy, Weed and Redding. She left Redding when she was 17 or 18 leaving behind being a migrant worker.
After the migrant worker days, she settled with a family in San Francisco. Soon after her half-sister also moved to San Francisco. Mary remembered fondly her brother-in-law Henderson Wilson, a World War I vet who worked hard to support the family.
In San Francisco, Mary met Obediah Brown. Obediah was a veteran of World War II and fought in South Africa. He got out of the Marines with a 15% disability At the time, he was working on the Marine Corps Supply Depot in San Francisco, Mary worked as a cafeteria worker in the hospital on the Presidio. Mary and Obediah married in 1952.
In 1959 the Marine Supply Base in San Francisco was shut down. This ties into the history of our area. Originally the Marines kept all of their supplies in San Francisco. When it was discovered that material stored better in the dry environment of the desert they built our supply base at Barstow in 1942.
So the Browns moved to Barstow. Obediah went to work at the Marine Base and Mary to the school district in the food service area. In Barstow, the Browns had three children; Robert Joseph, Jimmy Vaughn, and Patricia Marilyn.
The Browns experienced some racism. They were long time members of a mostly black church in San Francisco. Not so in Barstow. Doctor Dexter, a preacher in Barstow at the time, welcomed them warmly but the parishioners weren’t so happy to see the new faces. Whenever Mary was asked to attended a meeting, or help out at one, no one showed. Later Doctor Dexter revealed to Mary that after her family joined, there were 130 church members that left. The prejudice at the time wasn’t as overt as it was in the South but it was no less there. Doctor Dexter was reassigned shortly after the incident perhaps due in large part to these troubles. Mary’s friend, Mary Reilly, introduced her to Father Marion, the priest at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church Mary became a Catholic and was active in the church the rest of her life.
In 1962 Mary decided that the Riverside Drive neighborhood needed a community center. Instead of asking the city for a center, she started one herself. She bought a small building from a local minister, Reverend Page, on the corner of Riverside Drive and Yucca street and started the Barstow Community Center. The city gave her a permit later that year.
Dances, dinners, singing, games, meetings, after school activities, summer programs and even a wedding or two all happened at the Center. The names of the children that visited, played and learned at the center are all well known in town. Mary fondly remembered that all but two of the children who visited the center grew up to be good adults. Adults also benefited from the center. Among other functions it served as the office for Dependency Prevention and was the site of the first polling place in the Riverside Drive area.
Near the end of the time of the center, things changed and there were some troubles. Chief of Police, Robert Sessions, helped keep the peace and keep the center running. In 1986 the center closed its doors . Even though it was gone, Mary thought that with a little work it could be opened back up and be in the business of helping the neighborhood children.
Mary retired from the school district in 1987 but being retired didn’t mean slowing down. She continued being active in NAACP, The Arts and Industrial Woman’s and Men’s Club of which she was a past president, Saint Joseph’s Church, The National Association of Black Women., active in the registration for voters, a dedicated “Pink lady” for the Barstow Community Hospital Auxiliary, a volunteer at Desert Manna Shelter, the Head Start Program, and Meals on Wheels.
Obediah Brown retired from the base after 32 years of work. After he retired he helped with the community center and taught some of the children mechanics. Obediah also made a unsuccessful bid for city council losing by a narrow margin.
Mary passed way August 25, 2005 and I imagine that at the time a large number of the former patrons of the community center mourned and gave thanks to Mary for her efforts.
Do you have a hankering for something sweet? Do you want a fun family place to take your kids, your winning (or losing) team? Do you want a unique treat for your next party? Well Barstow has the place for you, Num Nums.
I’m a 21 year Barstow resident, with 35 years of Broadcast experience at various radio and TV stations in L.A., Ventura, Bakersfield, Las Vegas, Palmdale/Lancaster, and the Victor Valley, finally landing for 12 years in Barstow at Highway Radio.
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