In 1929, a young girl was born nine miles outside of Shreveport in a small rural town called Blanchard. Growing up, most of her recreation centered on the Church, and everyone in her small community knew about everyone else’s families. This upbringing was the epitome of a village raising a child. This child’s father only made it to the second grade in school. He could not read or write, but he was a hard worker. He worked for the railroad and farmed vegetables to make extra money. Her mother took care of the household and also worked as a maid. This country girl would grow up to become one of the most celebrated and impactful educators in Lake Charles. Advice such as “don’t bend the child to fit the book. Bend the book to fit the child,” examples her passion for her chosen trade. The journey began over 90 years ago, and today, we honor Mrs. Pythina “Pye” Brown for being a trailblazer for the City of Lake Charles and a local Black History Hero.
Her elementary years were spent living part-time with family members in the City of Shreveport, so she could attend Mt. Zion Elementary School in the City. Fond memories exist of her first grade teacher, Mrs. Legardy. She went home on the weekend to be with her parents. Her father was adamant that Pye receive a proper education. Shreveport is within Caddo Parish and she recalls the parish having basically three high schools: one for African Americans, one for poor whites and one for upper and middle class whites. Her recollection of educational disparity back then centered more on the difference between schools “in the City” versus schools “in the country,” the former being the better of the two. Though segregation existed in full force in the deep-south during this time, Pye remembers that this didn’t fully register until later. She remembers segregation being less prevalent in Blanchard than in the City of Shreveport. Her best friend growing up was a red-headed white girl named Betty Lou.
Pye wanted to be a teacher since the day she could walk. She recounts catching chickens on her family’s property as a little girl. She’d tie the chickens’ feet so they could be still and act as her “students.” In 1947, Pye made familial history as the first member on both sides of her family to graduate from high school. Her father had always heard that Grambling was the place to go if you wanted a teaching degree. After graduation, two job options were available: teaching at a school on an old plantation in Caddo Parish and a teaching job in Lake Charles. Though she had severe hesitations about teaching at the school in Caddo Parish, the final day came when she had to sign her contract or lose the opportunity, and she had yet to hear back definitively from Lake Charles as to whether she had officially been offered that job. She remembers, on that day, “the Holy Spirit told me to go to the post office one last time” and, lo and behold, a letter had arrived addressed to her from the Lake Charles City School System. Inside the letter was a contract to teach at the First Ward Colored School in Lake Charles. Pye was thrilled and so began a new chapter in her life.
Pye enjoyed Lake Charles. She was impressed because she had “never seen people so friendly. It was not like that in other places” she’d lived. Mrs. Brown settled into a rent house at the corner of Franklin and Jackson. This was a perfect location, allowing her to walk to work at the First Ward Colored School on Jackson Street. She found this house thanks to her principal, Mary Belle Williams. In those days, it was extremely customary for the principal at a school to help find housing for teachers moving into Lake Charles from outside the area. Mary Belle Williams was a force with which to be reckoned. Speaking of Mrs. Williams, Pye states, “She was something else. She would perform custodial work, whatever needed to be done. You better not be caught sitting down. You better be standing up teaching those children when she came around.”
The owner of the house at Jackson and Franklin was a retired educator, Florence Woods. Pye eventually met Leonard Brown, Florence’s nephew. This relationship evolved into a marriage that would last over fifty years until Leonard’s death in 2007. Mr. Brown was a barber by trade. Pye and Leonard would go on to have two boys, Gregory and Glenn.
Though Brown v. Board of Education was in 1954, full-scale integration did not occur in Calcasieu Parish until the mid to late 60’s. After 17 years at First Ward Colored School, Mrs. Brown was chosen as one of the first group of African American educators transferred to teach at white schools. Her next chapter began at EK Key elementary school in Sulphur. She along with fellow African American educator Betty Broussard were the two chosen to make the move to EK Key.
Brown’s experience at EK Key was overall a good one. The majority of students, teachers and parents accepted her into the school community. She has fond memories of Principal Franklin Foote. She does recount two instances that evidenced the mentality of some at the time. There was an occasion for parents to fill out questionnaires about what could improve the school. One parent wrote in a suggestion that the principal get rid of the Black teachers at the school. This parent used a racial slur when writing his answer. Pye also remembers that this exact parent, one year later, asked for his son be moved to Mrs. Brown’s class, because she had quickly garnered a reputation as a stellar, no-nonsense educator.
The second incident involved three, fifth grade boys at recess. The boys were playing in an area of the playground reserved for younger students. She told them to move to where they were supposed to be. Two of the boys obeyed her, while one lingered behind. As his friends ran off, the young man chastised them for listening to Mrs. Brown, again using a racial slur to describe her. Mrs. Brown was livid. She approached the young man. He ran into the boys’ bathroom, falsely thinking he could escape her. She followed in after him and grabbed him hard by the ears and pushed him against the wall. The female educator made him a deal. She said “Let me tell you one thing. I’m going to be here. Now don’t you ever let me hear you say that word again, because if you do, this is just a sample of what I’ll put on you. Now listen, I’m getting ready to walk out of here. If you don’t tell anybody what happened in this restroom, I won’t tell anyone what happened out there.” She smiles as she recounts how this young man went on to become “one of her best friends” over the next year at EK Key.
When asked further about segregation in the deep-south, the mother of two boys recounts a moment in the mid-50’s when the reality of the situation hit her very hard. She had recently visited Chicago with her young sons, and they had enjoyed a meal at a Woolworth’s diner. They were back in Lake Charles and her son, Greg, saw the Woolworth’s downtown and asked his mother if they could go in the diner to have a snack. She felt a wave of emotion, realizing that she had to find some way to tell her son that they could not sit at the diner in Lake Charles. “I knew we couldn’t, because if we had gone in there, we’d have had to stand up in the back, but I wasn’t about to tell my child that. That’s the first time that segregation really hit me, when my child wanted something to eat, I knew we couldn’t get it.”
Mrs. Brown would eventually receive her masters degree in administration and supervision from McNeese State University. After EK Key she worked with a Parental Involvement Kindergarten Program and then as Supervisor of Programmed Tutorial Reading. Pye remembers the strides the Calcasieu Parish School Board made during the 70s and 80s. She recalls, “They put more people that looked like me in central office.” She fondly remembers her friend, Gloria Ambrose, working alongside her at the central office. She retired from the Calcasieu Parish School System after 32 years.
In 1982, Pye Brown became the first full-time African American teacher at Our Lady Queen of Heaven Catholic School, thanks to the prodding of Sister Gloria Case. She remembers that Belinda Williams was actually a music teacher part-time at OLQH before Pye joined the faculty. She loved being back in the classroom. Her servant’s heart also prompted her to successfully run for a seat on the Calcasieu Parish School Board.
Today, at 91 years old, Pythina “Pye” Brown is a living legend among the Lake Charles education community. We honor her as a trailblazer. We acknowledge her impact on thousands of students and the lasting legacy she has left for our City. She is a role model and happy soul. One would be hard-pressed not to find a smile on her face. Some say Pye Brown is an unsung hero among us. Let us take this opportunity during Black History month to loudly sing about the accomplishments and legacy of Pye Brown, a local Black History Hero.