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Why did I write The Secrets of Hattie Brown?

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

I used the facts as a skeleton, and my imagination as the flesh, to create a story about Hattie Brown (my grandmother), and her mother Eliza Cowen, (my great grandmother).

Robert and Hattie Brown with seven of their nine children and their sister in law. Circa 1929

Welcome to my blog post. I will use this space to connect with you and to share information about myself as a writer, an educator, an artist, and as one trying to figure out what is happening to the world that we live in.

“My grandmother, Hattie Brown, died in 1931 when my father was five. She was thirty-nine. My grandfather, Robert, died the following year. They left nine children behind, aged three to twenty-two.” 

When I was growing up, my father often lamented about the fact that when he was a kid, living with his oldest brother in Brooklyn they were very poor. He said that he had one pair of corduroy pants which he washed at night before going to bed. Most often they were not dry in the morning so he would wear half dry pants to school. As a child I used to hate to hear him starting to tell that story. I was like, "Aw there he goes again." I could not fathom the reality of what he was saying because my life was so different from what he was describing. 

My dad, Azel Brown, was an entrepreneur, with a successful exterminating business. He employed several people, including family members. I lived in a private home and my mom was a housewife with a car (not as common at that time as it is now). Wearing wet pants to school? That sounded like some kind of guilt trip he was trying to take me on to get me to do my homework, I thought. 

Maturity changes our perspectives 

My grandmother, Hattie Brown, died in 1931 when my father was five. She was thirty-nine. My grandfather, Robert Brown, died the following year at age 42. Between her death and his, there was a fire that completely destroyed their home. They left nine children behind, aged three to twenty-two. As a young person, teenager, and then adult, I saw my aunts and uncles as my father's siblings, each having attributes that I admired and found inspiring. They were entrepreneurs, ministers, missionaries, parents to foster kids, and health professionals by vocation. Then, each of then was virtuous by their design. They were people who had strong beliefs and were steadfast in their convictions (um... in other words stubborn). People looked up to them. As I grew into adulthood, I began to understand., how hard they had to work to create the privileged lives that my brother, my cousins, and I had enjoyed as children. The more I understood, the greater my curiosity became about their beginnings. 

I started doing family history research in the 1980s. There was no internet. 

“If you want your story to be told well, you must tell it yourself”

I had a young son, and wanted to be sure that he knew the story of our family so that he would be able to tell his children when he became a father. My uncles Ernest and Lander, and Aunt Virginia were my first resources for names dates and places to begin the research process. I had to write letters to the Health Department in North Carolina, the state Library in Raleigh, and sometimes take a day off from work to visit the archives in New York City where I lived. I even went to North Carolina to do additional research in the courthouse and State Library there, on more than one occasion. This was all done in a effort to acquire documentation: birth certificates, death certificates, census reports, marriage licenses, etc. These things are now easy to find by just going to or some other internet based resource. 

Thirsty for more 

The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. At a family cookout in around 1988, Uncle Lander announced to everyone that I was officially the Family Historian. I knew that if I wanted our story to be told with elegance and grace and as much accuracy as possible, I would have to write it myself. As a history teacher and student, I've seen how a people's story can get distorted and mangled by strangers who are indifferent or have ulterior objectives. I wanted to tell our story using the facts that I have accumulated from archives, interviews with family members, and my knowledge of American history, to weave a tale that suggests possibilities for how it might have been. This fictional novel, is dedicated to my aunts and uncles; a noble and hard-working breed of people.

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