Daniel Webster Brown stepped off the train and onto the platform. A stiff wind found chinks in his threadbare suit and he shivered. It was January, 1887, and he was a long, long way from his home in Sumterville, Ala. A bearded man hailed him and introduced himself as Professor Blaisdell. “And this is Mrs. Olds,” he said, gesturing to his companion. The three took a carriage to the Olds residence where they conferred. Then Professor Blaisdell led Brown to the south side of campus and the old Burrall House, where the new Beloit College Academy student would live for the next couple of years. Brown carried a carpetbag in one hand and his precious accordion, tucked away in a battered case, in the other. A couple of friendly students, both of them white, greeted him. “Hello,” he said. “My name is Thomas J. Fisher.”
Daniel Webster Brown
How did Daniel Webster Brown, a.k.a. Thomas James Fisher find his way to Beloit? A newspaper article printed some 10 or 15 years later provides some fascinating details. Not long before arriving at Beloit, Brown had attended the Lincoln Normal University at Marion, Ala. One night, while walking with five fellow African-American students, they encountered six white students who tried to push them off the sidewalk.
“A scrimmage followed, in which one of the colored students hit one of the whites in the head, knocking him insensible,” the reporter noted. “Brown was accused of the deed, although guiltless. The man who struck the blow was a close friend of Brown's. Following the scrimmage a crowd collected and surrounded Brown.”
“I was a good dodger in those days,” said Brown. “I got out of the crowd some way or other, mostly by crawling through their legs. Then I ran away, and for three days was forced to hide. Public sentiment was aroused against me although I did nothing wrong. After remaining in hiding until it was found that it would never be safe for me to stay in that part of the country I left by a sort of underground railway for the North.”
Asher W. Curtis, Beloit College class of 1853, was a professor at Lincoln Normal. He did his best to help Brown, providing a letter of introduction to his sister, Mrs. Olds, as well as letters to friends who would assist him on his journey north. “At each place I answered to a different name which was sent on by the professors of the Southern colleges to the different stations. When I arrived at Beloit, Professor J.J. Blaisdell and Mrs. Olds gave me the name of Thomas Fisher.”
Brown settled down to life as a student in the Middle Preparatory Class, studying in the Classical Division, which would prepare him for college. He supported himself through odd jobs in town and after living in the rickety old Burrall House for a couple of years, moved to North College (Campbell Hall) where he and his accordion proved popular. According to the newspaper account, "He used to have circles of friends sitting in his room night after night listening to his rendition of old Southern melodies."
In 1889, Brown and other pioneering students founded the college’s first football team. They played one intercollegiate game, thumping Madison 4-0, and by all accounts, Brown at left halfback was one of the stars and, according to some historians, one of the first African-Americans to play football for a northern college. The new sport became something of a mania among the students and within a few years the college team featured a lengthy fall schedule of fiercely anticipated contests. Beloit’s white students seemed to accept and like Brown and the college’s few other African-American students.
The Round Table, however, reported an incident in October 1891, which either alludes to a possible outsider view of Brown’s commingling with white students on the athletic field or perhaps points to revenge for his football prowess. In a return engagement on the gridiron, Madison crushed Beloit 40-0. A reporter’s oblique comments yield more questions than answers.
“We all enjoy variety, but certainly everyone regrets the side issue of last Saturday’s game. We as certainly do not consider that Beloit was the aggressor. Through the early part of the game there was an evident disposition to knock up Fisher, our colored half, who made Madison so much trouble two years ago. Kerr, U.W.’s right end, was especially anxious in this particular, and to him is traceable the beginning of the affair.”
Brown studied in the Academy for a few years and then entered Beloit College in the fall of 1890. He continued playing football, but because of a severe football injury, he left before graduating. The Beloit Daily Free Press covered the contest Brown referred to, a 26-16 loss against Lake Forest:
“Fisher, Beloit’s right half back, was hurt near the close of the first half and Frizzell took his place.” Brown apparently broke three ribs and never played another game.
City directories through 1897 list Brown as a student, living at 1034 Broad Street. Within a few years, however, he had left Beloit and returned south to teach. He landed a position as superintendent and solicitor for the Noxubee Industrial School at McLeod, Miss. For several summers, Brown traveled the country, soliciting funds for the school, modeled along the lines of Booker T. Washington’s famous Tuskegee Institute. A 1905-1906 financial report for Noxubee shows numerous donations from Beloit businesses and citizens, including several from Brown’s former college professors.
Brown battled illness and family troubles and the resulting financial crisis led him to temptation in August 1910. During one of his trips to Iowa, the Waterloo Evening Courier reported Brown’s arrest for receiving money on false pretenses in his solicitation of funds for Noxubee. A judge fined and jailed Brown and then let him out on bail when he agreed to make restitution by working it off. By November, Brown had “squared up” with the town and with the school.
For now, that’s where we leave Daniel Webster Brown. The archival paper trail peters out. Perhaps Brown’s own words best cap his strange, colorful and winding tale, as reported in an unidentified newspaper:
“Yes, it is an interesting story, but I haven’t told it all. I am afraid to tell the most interesting part. A colored man never knows what he is going to get in the South. I have been back to the old country, and in and about and all through the places where the mob once hunted for me with guns and knives, and it is all forgotten now. But a colored man is never safe and I cannot tell the whole story, even up here in the North.”
Read past installments of Fridays with Fred here.