Images: Inside Brownlee & Son's Market, Memorial Marker outside, Scenes at the Brownlee's Day Celebration event
Written by William Bryant Rozier
Thomas Earl Brownlee was interrupted several times when he was trying to tell the origin story of Thomas Brownlee & Sons Market, the corner grocery store at 613 Oxford Street that is his father’s business legacy. The customers standing in wait asked to have their checks cashed after the close of business on a Sunday, but the exception was made for them. All was resolved ten minutes later.
“The whole neighborhood is changing; I’m surrounded by competition,” Thomas Earl said as he noted the new gas station at the corner of Holton Avenue and Oxford down the way that joined the ranks of the other corner store and the gas station directly across the street.
The stretch of Oxford Street in front of the market has been christened by the city the Thomas Larry Brownlee Memorial Way.
“My dad was born in Clay County, Mississippi,” Thomas Earl said, who was born in Houston, Mississippi himself, in the county of Chickasaw. “He came to Fort Wayne with 50 cents to his name.”
Thomas Larry Brownlee, according to his son, bought a truck and peddled fruits and vegetables all over Fort Wayne. He would give them food if some of the poor families could not afford a paid transaction.
“Kids would come out all the time because he would blow a whistle,” Thomas Earl said. “He made a name for himself out there.”
Georgia Broadnax has known the Brownlee’s since 1969 and was on the recipient of his food truck.
“He was a good man,” Broadnax said. “I would say it behind his back and in front of his face.”
When it as time to expand and add a storefront to the business, Brownlee knocked on doors to see if the business inside wanted to add grocery to its roster. He came up to the Oxford location and found a taker with the owner, with the name of Speck.
The building was split into two at the time. In the half of the building where the freezer and cooler is now was a pool room; in the other half of the building, where the cash register is now, was a cleaner and tailor shop. Brownlee bought the entire building, eventually transforming all of the square feet to sell groceries. The freezer and cooler was installed by a man from Germany.
Thomas Brownlee & Sons Market will turn 40 years old in October 2018 and is named after Thomas Earl and his brother Dwayne. “Not daughters but sons,” said Bertha Brownlee-Brooks. She laughed; it sounded voluptuous, like she was on the right side of history. Brownlee had two sons and two daughters, Bertha and Christine. Thomas Earl’s mother, Glynder, 89, still helps out.
In its almost 40 years, the market has had close to 30 cashiers, figured both Thomas Earl and Bertha, whose daughter Denise Brooks and her friend Gina Williams, at age 13, were the market’s first cashiers. Wanda Tubbs is their longest cashier, of about thirty years.
Thomas Earl’s two sons, Kris and Mark, didn’t really work much at the market. Their father did though. Thomas Earl, whose main job is tax preparation, “has always been in the background,” he said. “When a customer would call here to order something from my dad, I would actually ask them if I could do their taxes.”
For every 10 potentials asked, Thomas Earl would nab two or three. Twenty years ago, Thomas Earl’s client list rose and eclipsed at 800. He learned how to prepare taxes by hand at his father’s store.
“My dad was my best friend. I would do anything to help him.” Thomas Brownlee passed away on May 8, 2010. One of his last wishes to Thomas Earl: Try and keep the store open for as long as you can. “There’s a reason why I personally do it.” Brownlee tried to get his son out of a bad war.
When Thomas Earl was drafted into Vietnam, his father watched a lot of the news; his worry and the impregnable uncertainty prompted the father to write letters to congressmen, to attorney general Robert Kennedy, and to President Lyndon Johnson himself to escort his boy safely home. A letter to the president got to the right person.
A terrified Private Thomas Earl found himself answering questions in front of his company commander who said, “I gotta make sense of what to do to you.”
When asked if he wanted to stay or go home, Thomas Earl replied, “Sir, I’m not a coward, and I’m not going to run away.” A chaplain wrote his father a letter to tell him. The young private was “fairly safe” where he was.
One month after deciding, Thomas Earl’s whole company up and moved to where all of the action was. “I made my dad suffer for eight more months.”
That’s why Thomas Earl donates his time to his father’s business.
Thomas Brownlee & Sons Market, 613 Oxford Street, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46806, (260) 744-1613, Facebook: Thomas Brownlee & Sons Market