SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — He’s considered the Pastor’s pastor. Affectionately nicknamed the Dean of Clergy.
Pastor Matthew Southall Brown, Sr. says he knew when he was in junior high school that God had a calling on his life.
Five years shy of his 100th birthday, we sat down with Pastor Matthew Southhall Brown to learn more about his extraordinary life.
“I’ve had a colorful life as I look back now,” Brown says, “I didn’t realize it. The community told me what kind of life I had by the things they asked me to do and the questions that they asked me.”
A visit to his home is more like a walk through a museum. There are pictures, plaques, awards and citations–even a hall of fame–documenting his accomplishments both known and unknown.
Preaching has always been his passion. In fact, he spent 35 years at the helm of Savannah’s St. John Baptist Church. He retired in 2004 at the age of 81.
But before he stepped foot in the pulpit. He made history on the battlefield.
“In fact, back then you know they were drafting,” Brown recalls. “When I graduated from high school, I got my diploma in this hand and my orders in that hand.”
A little-known fact, rarely recognized–Pastor Brown was among the first African American soldiers to fight in WWII.
“The military back then was strictly segregated. I went in at 17… maybe 17 1/2 and quartermaster they called it. Stacking gasoline, washing pots and pans, cleaning latrines, and the red ball highway and that kind of thing.”
He was serving in Europe when the Battle of the Bulge broke out. It was during a time when blacks were only allowed to serve in support units.
“So, when Hitler made his breakthrough, they apparently didn’t have enough– the infantry was all white,” Brown says. “They did not have enough men, soldiers to put and close that Bulge. So, Eisenhower and his generals sent edicts down to quartermaster troops- black troops. If you want to join the infantry, you can sign up.”
Brown would become one of the 2,221 who answered the call.
“Mine was 9th Division, 60th infantry regiment, company E. I never forgot that. When the military teaches you something, you don’t forget it. 34-56-94-14. That’s what they told us, if you ever got captured, give them your name, rank, and serial number.”
But rank had no standing for African American soldiers.
“If you were a sergeant, lieutenant or whatever, you had to give up your rank in order to fight. And the reason being is that they did not want a black man giving orders to white boys and white men. So everybody was bumped down to private.”
It marked the first time the U.S. Army desegregated–and he was in the thick of it–fighting side by side with his white counterparts.
“And of course, personally, I crossed the Elbe River–the Rhine–and fought my way into Berlin and then waited on the Russians. And I always add that’s why we have two Germanies–east and west. It wasn’t easy. That’s when I realized that I was in a war.”
But despite their sacrifice, few stories have been told about their valiant service during World War II– their efforts seemingly fading into obscurity.
In 1994, 50 years after Brown entered the war, then-President Bill Clinton honored those heroes.
“When Clinton became president, all of their ranks were restored. And their discharges were changed to reflect the outfit they fought with.”
However, little has been said since then.
Today, Brown says there are only a few left to tell the story.
So, he’s working on a book to do just that–focusing on some of his most difficult challenges.
“So subsequently, I’m writing this book, ‘How to get through It.’ Through what? Through whatever. And you will hear me say in that book, there are some things that God will bring you through his grace but you will never get over. So, I’m getting through that by writing.”
Documenting his thoughts in hopes of passing on this important piece of history.
“What we are experiencing and what we have experienced today, if we don’t pass it on to our children, it may not be around tomorrow for their children.”