Except for the clock ticking in his den, all I could hear was Dr. Eldee Brown Sr. talking:
“My grandparents came from Africa and were sold as slaves in Fayetteville.”
Those haunting words were the beginning as I learned the state’s oldest currently active-licensed chiropractor’s story.
Brown turned 97 in April.
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The first black chiropractor to practice in Durham, the Brown family patriarch has children that followed in his footsteps, including two chiropractors, an attorney and a grandson practicing chiropractic work.
Through the years, Brown has held several careers, had six children, 13 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
His life almost seems like an old black and white movie.
Born April 9, 1917, he grew up on a farm in Cerro Gordo, N.C., a small town in Columbus County near the border with South Carolina, where he spent the days working with mules and hogs. The youngest of nine children, he would eventually become the first to graduate from college.
Brown’s father died when he was 7, leaving his mother and grandmother as strong influences in his life.
His mother, Sally Harriet Yates, stressed education and watched him graduate from Chadbourn Negro High School, later renamed Westside High School, near his hometown in 1937.
The same year he got a driver’s license, but Brown remembers a time when one was not needed.
“You just needed to know left and right — and you could drive,” he said.
Eventually he bought his first car – a 1939 Dodge – after he was married. He remembers paying $75 for it.
But before that, life after high school found Brown everywhere.
He went to college at Tuskegee University, the historical black university in Alabama founded by Booker T. Washington, and studied commercial dietetics thinking he would become a cook.
“I didn’t like it too much,” Brown said. “But George Washington Carver was there. They said he used all those checks he got as bookmarks.”
Quickly discovering cooking wasn’t for him, the early 1940s found Brown at Florida A & M University where he met his future wife, Claronell.
They married in 1942 and spent the next 52 years together.
That same year Brown left FAMU, for a while, and joined the Army. At Fort Benning, Ga., he worked with pathologists as a laboratory technician while also helping in medic training.
But like cooking, Brown felt a military career wasn’t for him.
“I spent exactly three years, eight months and 23 days in the Army,” he said.
After leaving the ranks in 1946 , Brown returned to FAMU under the G.I. Bill, where he graduated with a science degree in 1947.
Room and board back then was $19 a month.
After graduation, Brown taught for a while in Trenton, N.C. and also at a nursing school in Wilmington.
But for Brown, his own education was not finished.
The 1950s found him studying at N.C. Central University, known then as North Carolina College at Durham. The science degree he received there in 1953 might be his favorite.
“When I got that degree my mom was there,” Brown said. “That was the greatest graduation gift.”
After that, Brown decided to pursue becoming a doctor. He enrolled in the National College of Chiropractic near Chicago and after completing the program in 1959, returned to N.C. to start a practice in Durham.
By then, the field of chiropractic was just as old as he was – they were both born the same year.
“It wasn’t easy to pass the chiropractor exam, but I didn’t have any problems,” he said.
Brown opened his first office in Old Hayti in a space shared with Dr. Jeffries, a black optometrist. In this area, off what is now known as Old Fayetteville Street, many black businesses, like professional offices and markets, thrived.
Carol Hall, executive secretary at the state Board of Chiropractic Examiners, said Brown is known as a trailblazer.
“He made it easier for other doctors down the line,” she said. “He’s a pioneer of chiropractic.”
Brown chose Durham for his practice because he said it was a good place for African-American businesses.
“It’s a good place to be,” he said.
In those days, white patients would come from Chicago or New York to visit friends and would often stop by his office for treatment. Even though Brown began his practice during a time of strained race relations, he never had any trouble.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess I was nice and had good relationships.”
Brown’s second oldest son, James, still runs the day-to-day operations at the family’s current chiropractic location, Clarohope Chiropractic on Bacon Street.
It’s been there since 1983.
James Brown said things weren’t always easy for “Pop.” At conferences, the elder Brown would not be allowed in the segregated hotels where events were held.
But both parents, including his mother who worked for Durham Public Schools for decades, were “educational minded.”
“They came from farms and mules,” James Brown said. “My father was the first to graduate from college.”
“They were inspiration for all us kids.”
Raising five boys all in the Boy Scouts, the elder Brown spent time as a Boy Scout leader and was eventually awarded the Silver Beaver, an honor the scouts grant adult leaders that impact the lives of youth.
“Kids today don’t believe the Boy Scouts were segregated back then,” Brown said. “But they were.”
At his home church of decades, Saint Joseph AME, Brown is also remembered as a leader and in 1961 was named Father of the Year.
Among the many honors, degrees and awards surrounding the walls of his home, Brown has a medal from former Gov. Mike Easley and his wife that was a holiday gift recognizing his work during the governor’s tenure.
Good place to be
These days, the senior Brown is in the office much less.
He plays bridge weekly, usually on Mondays. He prefers driving now over flying – since “planes started falling from the sky.”
He eats Chicken Hut regularly, enjoys watching CNN and is glad of all the changes at NCCU; the campus is only a few blocks from his home.
Durham has changed greatly, he said, and is his “favorite place to be.”
And if there is a secret to longevity, it’s what might be expected from a doctor.
Brown said: “Don’t smoke, don’t drink and eat lots of vegetables.”
Carlton Koonce is a correspondent for The Durham News.