As a young man in San Antonio, Charles Quinton Brown was quiet, studious and serious about the future.
“During his school years, you never one time had to say, ‘Would you do your homework?’” said his mother, Kay Tanner Brown. “It was automatic. He always studied hard.”
As three generations of Browns stood Thursday in a hangar at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, it was clear how far the studious one had come. Gen. Charles Q. Brown, who once asked a Vietnam War veteran what he had to do to become a fighter pilot, was installed as the Air Force chief of staff, becoming the first African American to hold the job.
“I’m in awe that I’m even standing here as the 22nd Air Force chief of staff considering that I had only planned to stay in the Air Force four years and almost quit ROTC after my first semester,” Brown, 57, said after taking command, two days after President Trump swore him in at the Oval Office. “Yet, here I am in a position that I never thought imaginable.”
Brown, known as CQ, was raised in a military family and spent some of his formative years in San Antonio. His appointment to the top Pentagon post signifies a new era of leadership that was out of reach for his late grandfather and father, whose lives and potential were limited by the society they defended over two generations as soldiers fighting in distant wars.
His grandfather, Robert E. Brown Jr., served in a segregated, all-Black unit in the Pacific during World War II. He worked for a family and had side jobs preparing taxes and serving as a notary, even though he only made it through the eighth grade.
His parents, Charles and Kay Brown, grew up in San Antonio during the Jim Crow era, when Blacks rode in the back of the bus and entered movie theaters through the back door.
This story of Brown’s upbringing is based on interviews with his parents, who retired to O’Fallon, Ohio. The younger Brown, the new Air Force chief, could not be reached for an interview.
Charles Brown graduate from San Antonio’s Jefferson High School in 1959. He was a National Honor Society member and treasurer of the senior class, played football for the Mustangs but was ignored by Southwest Conference football recruiters. He was one of five Blacks in a class of around 500.
While earning a bachelor’s in accounting at St. Mary’s University, the elder Brown said he was passed over for internships by big companies like Arthur Andersen. An ROTC student, he owed Uncle Sam a two-year commitment after graduating, but knew his best bet was the military and made it a career, retiring as a colonel after 30 years in the Army.
Charles Brown was the second Black officer commissioned in St. Mary’s ROTC program. His brother, Robert, was the first.
“I said something to my brother not too long ago,” Brown said. “I graduated from high school in 1959, and when I look back and see the things that happened during the time I was in high school and college, and even early in my military career, to see the things that transpired, and I look back sometimes and say, ‘Man, look how far we have come.’ But on the flip side of that, I can also say, ‘Look how far we have to go.’”
CQ’s climb to the top
Charles Quinton Brown came to the Air Force’s top job just in time to be reminded of that. After nationwide protests erupted in the wake of George Floyd’s death, he talked about the incident and his own ordeals with racism over the course of his career.
In a video made by Pacific Air Forces, which he led until becoming chief, Brown said he pondered “a history of racial issues and my own experiences that didn’t always sing of liberty and equality.”
“I’m thinking of my own Air Force career, when I was often the only African American in my squadron or as a senior officer the only African American in the room,” he said in the video. “I’m thinking about wearing the same flight suit with the same wings on my chest as my peers and being questioned by another military member, ‘Are you a pilot?’”
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Brown, whose pilot call sign “CQ” also comes from his initials, has logged more than 2,900 hours in four models of the F-16 and another 15 planes and helicopters, and has 130 combat hours over Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan. Yet his rise as a command pilot through the ranks of the Air Force defied all the odds.
Around one in every six airmen are African American, and just 6 percent are officers. In 2016, only 3,628 blacks served as officers, compared with 48,512 whites. The number of officers from major to lieutenant colonel in the years 2006-16 was about 6 percent.
In 2009, Brown was one of only 12 Blacks to become a one-star general. African Americans make up a fraction of all the general officers, ranging from 2.8 percent in 2006 to a high of 5.3 percent in 2012. In 2016, just 5 percent of all general officers were Black.
Hard times in the Jim Crow era
If that strikes some as a sluggish pace of progress 55 years after the landmark Voting Rights Act, Brown nonetheless had an easier time of it than his parents and grandfather. After Pearl Harbor, Robert E. Brown Jr. went into the Army and was shipped to the Pacific, serving with the 576th Port Battalion — a unit composed exclusively of Black soldiers.
The battalion’s job was to load and unload ships — a typical role given to Blacks by a military that would separate troops by race until President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces in 1948.
Charles Brown was born in San Antonio five months before Japan started the war. His family lived in a house in the 700 block of Kentucky Avenue, an easy walk to Woodlawn Lake. While segregated neighborhoods were the norm, his was predominantly African American but mixed, with Hispanics as next-door neighbors and at least one white family on the block.
“Our house was the second house from the corner,” Charles Brown ,79, said. “If I walked to the corner and turned right, it would be an all-Black neighborhood. If I turned to the left, it would be predominantly white but some Hispanic, and of course schools were segregated.”
As he grew up, Brown said “you kind of took things as they were and you just kind of knew what you could do.” He vividly remembers catching the bus and riding into town, then getting a hot dog, a drink and going to the Empire or Majestic theaters.
The boundaries between races were laid out all along his route from home to downtown, from the bus — where signs said “back seats reserved for colored patrons” — to the theater. Signs downtown said “colored” restrooms and “colored” water fountains until 1954, when the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools.
Yet change still came slowly and the Browns began to push back.
“We’d get in line, we’d pair up with African Americans and either whites or Hispanics and go up the counter and ask for tickets and they would say, ‘Well, we can sell your friend one, but we can’t sell you one,’” Charles Brown said of a protest outside a movie theater organized by the NAACP and college students. “And so you go back to the end of the line and start all over again, and eventually they opened up the movie theaters. It was a protest, but it was peaceful.”
A quiet and inquisitive child
The Browns, who met in 1959, were focused on education. Charles Brown earned his bachelor’s from St. Mary’s in 1963 while Kay went to San Antonio College and continued her studies while moving to different Army posts.
CQ, the first of three children, was born at Christus Santa Rosa Hospital and soon became known for being quieter and more reserved than his sister, Stephanie, and brother, Kevin.
That trait came from his father.
“He was very inquisitive, like most little ones, and always he’s been a quieter, reserved individual. That’s carried on until now but always thinking deeply, sometimes deeper than most kids his age,” Kay Brown said.
There was one other thing people noticed. CQ, who they called Chuck as a teenager, also was neat.
“Some friends would kind of say to me, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you put white shorts on him.’ He could wear a pair of white shorts two days. He did not like a mess,” his mother said of CQ, who was 4 at the time. “My daughter was just the opposite. Being a girl, she was a like a pigpen.”
As his dad before him, CQ displayed prowess as an athlete. He played softball, tennis and football in middle school and stuck to the latter two sports as he progressed in high school. He became an Eagle Scout and performed well academically, making the National Honor Society.
The family traveled a lot as Charles Brown got new orders. They left San Antonio in 1963 but returned when he went to Vietnam in 1966-67. They also came home when Brown began his second tour of the war zone in 1969.
Kay Brown got a lot of support in raising the kids from aunts and uncles on her side of the family. The last surviving uncle died this year, but other relatives still live in San Antonio.
CQ was young when they left the first time, perhaps 4 in 1966, and 7 three years later. Sometime in his senior year at Ferguson High School in Newport News, Va., the bookish and self-disciplined Brown began thinking of entering a military academy. His parents said a couple of the academies reached out, but that ultimately their son preferred a more traditional college experience.
CQ’s path comes into focus
In 1980, CQ arrived at Texas Tech University on a four-year ROTC scholarship. One reason he chose Tech was because it had a dual-degree program in architecture and civil engineering.
Perhaps the major turning point in his life came on or after his sophomore year, when he went to a summer camp at Altus AFB in Oklahoma and took an orientation ride in an Air Force plane.
“I am not a good flying person,” Kay Brown said. “I do it, but I don’t care to do it, and I said, ‘Oh no, do something else.’ He said, ‘No, that’s what I want to do.’ And of course, it’s his decision.
“And then the next thing to give me a little more anxiety – this might have been a year or so later – he said he decided he wanted to fly fighters, fighter jets, and that’s when I said, ‘Oh, heavens, no.’”
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CQ went to Air Force undergraduate pilot training at Williams AFB in Arizona, after earning a bachelor’s in civil engineering at Tech in 1984. While there, he remembered a bit of advice from Fred Cherry, an African American fighter pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war, who told CQ that if he wanted to fly an F-15 or F-16, graduate at the top of the class.
He did, and learned to fly the F-16 at McDill AFB in Florida, from August 1986 to March 1987. Brown later became an F-16 instructor pilot, a fighter squadron commander, commandant of the Air Force Weapons School in Nevada, commander of the 8th Fighter Wing in South Korea, the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base in Italy, and commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command before heading Pacific Air Forces in Hawaii.
Becoming a general
The Browns saw CQ promoted to one-star general. Like many generals, he was a “fast burner,” as they say in the Air Force. He rose to major general four years later in 2013, lieutenant general in 2015 and won his fourth star in 2018. The promotions fulfilled a prediction CQ’s grandfather made before his death in 2004.
“‘I believe that boy’s going to be a general,’” Charles Brown said of their conversation.
“We’re proud of all of our children, but I was military and he’s military and it’s just in me, and I just feel the pride every time I think about it,” he continued. “There has been a lot of emotion throughout, but when our son … took over command of the U.S. Air Forces Pacific, and then just to think my father had served in a segregated unit in the Pacific during the Second World War, and then here his grandson commanding in Air Forces Pacific, it really tugged at my heart strings.”
Sig Christenson covers the military and its impact in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. To read more from Sig, become a subscriber. firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @saddamscribe
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