February 2006

SC Rep. Joe E. Brown

Full-time state lawmaker; retired school administrator

Education: 1956 graduate of Allen University; Masters Degree from S.C. State University in 1961; Post-graduate work, University of S.C., 1977-83. Received Honorary Doctorate Degree from Allen University in 2001.

Here’s what young Joe Brown’s day was like when he was in high school. He was up before sunrise so he could deliver the morning newspaper. He would then go drive a school bus. Then he went to school, where Brown was an excellent student. After school, it was back to driving the bus. In the fall, there was football practice. Brown was a star athlete. Otherwise, Brown’s nights were a juggle between studying, working at a service station and a job he held as a custodian. SC Rep. Joe Brown, D-Columbia, knows hard work. Brown lost his father as an infant. It’s partly what has driven him all of these years, a need to make his own way in light of that loss. Brown, determined to go to college, made it. Allen University awarded Brown a football scholarship. He quickly adapted to life as a college student. It was where he belonged. But college became expensive. Brown simply returned to the familiar, and went to work. Joe Brown put himself through college, working seven nights a week at the Elks Club in Columbia. The experience ignited in him something that still burns today — an insatiable drive and a peerless work ethic. It is what made Brown the first college graduate in his family. It is what made Brown the state’s youngest principal in 1957, at Atlas Road Elementary. “I grew up during a time when teaching was a great profession,” Brown said. And Brown was on the fast track.

By 1957 he was principal at Hopkins High School. Save for a brief stint as a principal in North Carolina in 1965, Brown remained principal at Hopkins until 1971, the year Hopkins and Lower Richland High School merged. Brown would remain Jr. High School principal at Hopkins High School until 1985, when he retired after 30 years. That’s when Brown started his second career. It was during his time as a principal that Brown would come to understand the importance of effective leadership at the state level. His Lower Richland community needed effective servant leadership. So Brown decided to run for office in 1986 for a seat in the state’s House of Representatives. He emerged victorious from a field of eight candidates. “I won because my former students helped me win,” Brown said. Today, Rep. Brown, a Democrat, is the longest-serving African-American state representative in South Carolina’s history and currently the only African American committee chairman in the General Assembly. He is also the lone Democratic committee chair in a body controlled by Republicans. His survival in politics, say Brown’s colleagues in the General Assembly, is owed to the fact that Brown is such a genuine, likable guy. That he survived a challenge to his chairmanship in 2005 is a testament to the universal respect afforded Brown.

Over his 20 years in the Legislature, Brown’s influence has been felt in some of the state’s most critical issues. He has been a stalwart supporter of public education and he has taken on the rising cost of health care in his committee. A passion of his is closing the health disparities between whites and African Americans in South Carolina who suffer disproportionately and die disproportionately from chronic illnesses. And though serving in the Legislature is a part-time job, Brown approaches it with full-time effort. Today, Brown still gets up before most, puts in long hours few others are willing to expend and makes his own way.