When Gloria Brown was just 30 years old and the mother of three small children, her husband was killed by a drunk driver. Her future looked bleak, but through perseverance, hard work and smarts, she ascended and became the first African American woman to be named a Forest Supervisor with the U.S. Forest Service.
Brown, a Portland area resident, has written a book along with history professor Donna Sinclair, about her experiences in the Forest Service titled “”Black Woman in Green,” recently published by Oregon State University Press.
Brown recently sat down with the Portland Observer to talk about her journey. She said she was working for the Forest Service as a clerical worker in Washington, D.C. when her husband was killed and she knew she had to work hard to make ends meet. People of color didn’t have great opportunities for advancement in D.C., so she asked for a transfer so she could move up and make more money to support her children. She was hoping to go to Atlanta, but instead was sent to Missoula, Mont. where she ran into blatant racism.
She had been in Montana for several years when her daughter, Nicki, who was in high school, was attacked and called the N-word by a white girl, the captain of the basketball team. Her daughter fought back and both girls were suspended, but Brown soon learned that the white girl was continuing to go to basketball practice. When she asked the assistant principal why, she was told that the school “didn’t have these problems” until her children came into the school system.
Outraged, she contacted her supervisor, who called the school superintendent and in a short time, the principal called her and said they let the white girl continue to participate because she had an abusive father and they were afraid he would hurt her if he found out she had been in a fight. Incredulous, Brown asked if anyone thought about her daughter.
“They said no,” she said. “It was an honest answer. But I said that is not acceptable and feels like racism against my daughter.”
But it was while in Montana that Brown learned to make camp in the woods, ride a horse and learn all about the wilderness experience that she came to love, as she relates in the book.
Although she had made friends in Missoula, and the reason for her leaving was featured in the July 1987 issue of the Missoulian newspaper titled “Shades of Racism,” Brown knew she had to leave.
“I felt sad about leaving,” she wrote in the book. “I had been naïve about Montana, but I’d also learned that if I set my mind to it, I could do just about anything. I had ridden a horse, set up camp, cooked outdoors, learned to fight fire, made new friends in an all-white community, helped other women and begun to focus on civil rights. When I arrived, the beauty of the Big Sky country had enveloped me like a blanket. Now I felt cold.”