It is said that success has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan. Manson Brown has a thousand fathers. His is an American success story. He is a living success in every sense of the word. From relatively humble beginnings he was able to rise to the highest pinnacles of power in the U. S. military.
His natural father, the late Manson Brown Junior, was proud of him.
His Coast Guard father, London Steverson, recruited his out of St. John’s Prep School in Washington, D.C. and wanted him to become Commandant of the U. S. Coast Guard.
His professional fathers, U.S. Transportation Secretaries Rodney E. Slater and Norman Y. Mineta challenged him with cutting-edged assignments.
In 2003, he was Chief of Officer Personnel Management at the Coast Guard Personnel Command when Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta called, explaining that Ambassador to Iraq Paul Bremer needed “a transportation guy” in Baghdad. Bremer was the Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. In actuality that made Ambassador Bremer the President of Iraq and Admiral Brown became his Secretary of Transportation.
In Baghdad, Brown was the Senior Advisor for Transportation to the Coalition Provisional Authority, overseeing restoration of transportation systems throughout Iraq. The air lines were not flying; the trains were not running, and all ports were closed to shipping. In a matter of three months Admiral Brown and his team were able to get Iraqi Airways flying again, and to open all ports for shipping. Moreover, the trains were not only running, but they were running on time.
His spiritual father, Admiral Robert Papp is proud of him. Papp means priest in Hungarian; so, his last boss and father confessor came from a family of priests. At Vice Admiral Brown’s retirement ceremony, his Spiritual Father preached to the choir. He told a parable; it was a Parable of Hope. He was describing how any child from any inner city ghetto or poverty hole in America can come into the Coast Guard and rise to the highest level or authority and responsibility that his talent, diligence and initiative will take him.
Manson Brown’s life is a parable; it is a story of hope for Black children every where in America that anyone can make it in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. America is truly the Land of Opportunity and Hope for anyone who will apply their innate God-given talents to study, to learn, and to excel.
Admiral Papp, the Commandant of the Coast Guard, described Brown as a friend and mentor. Earlier in their careers, the two officers commuted together to their office in Washington. During one conversation on the way to work, they talked about officer promotions and assignments. Papp said he was surprised when Brown pointed out that bias kept some Black officers from advancement.
“All of us human beings, whether we admit it or not, have our own biases,” Papp said. “He opened my eyes to those biases and made me look harder to make sure that we are a balanced and diverse service.”
Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the Coast Guard Commandant, said that Brown had stood on the shoulders of Black officers before him and that those who follow owe Brown a debt for his service. Brown played a crucial role in developing the careers of minorities in the Coast Guard, Papp added.
“While we still have a long way to go, I credit Manson Brown for speaking truth to power,” Papp said.
In recent years, Brown led a Coast Guard effort to improve sexual assault prevention and outreach. A civil engineer by training, he also oversaw recovery operations after Hurricane Sandy wrought $270 million in damage to Coast Guard property, Papp said.
All of the other members of the USCGA Class of 1978 are proud of him.
Every officer and enlisted member of the USCG is proud of him, because had it not been for Manson Brown the USCG may not have a Headquarters in Washington, DC.
The construction of a massive new headquarters for the Department of Homeland Security, billed as critical for national security and the revitalization of Southeast Washington, is running more than $1.5 billion over budget, is 11 years behind schedule and may never be completed, according to planning documents and federal officials.
With the exception of the Coast Guard Headquarters building that opened in 2013, most of the DHS site remains entirely undeveloped. The present estimated completion date of 2026 is being reconsidered with a view towards 2030, or later; and, possibly even never.
Vice Admiral Manson Brown saved the Coast Guard and the relocation of Coast Guard Headquarters. This was his last major project in the years before he retired. Now, DHS, may wish their agency had a man like Manson K. Brown.
VADM Brown retired on May 14, 2014 as Deputy Commandant for Mission Support and Commander of Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington,DC. Perhaps if he could have been persuaded to stay around for a few more years he could have overseen the transition and move of the DHS Headquarters to the new site. But, they would probably have had to make him Commandant of the Coast Guard to do that.
Instead, on behalf of a grateful Nation, and the entire Coast Guard we wished him fair skies, favorable winds and following seas in his well deserved retirement.
Brown said his achievements would not have been possible without the legacy forged by the first Black officers in the early years of the Coast Guard.
“When I saw him (LT London Steverson) at the front door in full uniform, a Black man, I saw a vision for the future. He convinced my mother to let me visit the (U S Coast Guard) Academy and I was hooked, Brown said.”
At first, Brown’s mother was reluctant to let him join the military as war raged in Vietnam, he said at the ceremony.
But then London Steverson, the second Black graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (Class of 1968), visited the Brown family home in Ward 4.
“I convinced his mother that her son would not be taken advantage of and would not be a token” black student at the academy, Steverson said. “He was the best of the best. I knew that he could survive.”
After graduating from St. John’s College High School in the District, Brown enrolled in the Coast Guard Academy’s Class of 1978, headed to a life patrolling the seas even though he didn’t know how to swim. As a cadet, one of his first assignments was to learn basic strokes.
He later helped create a campus network for minority students at the school. In 1977, he became the first African American to lead the U.S. Coast Guard Academy corps of cadets, the Coast Guard’s student body.
“The vast majority of my career, people embraced me for my passion and ability,” Brown said. When incidents of racism arose, “I decided to confront it at its face.”
Serving aboard the USCGC Glacier (WAGB-4), an icebreaker, during his first assignment as a young officer, Brown said he had to confront racism almost immediately. He noticed that one older white subordinate, a popular chief petty officer, seemed agitated by his presence. Brown decided to settle the matter face to face.
“He said there was no way he was going to work for a Black man,” Brown said. “My head pounded with anger and frustration.”
But other enlisted leaders on the ship rallied behind Brown. Throughout the rest of his career, Brown was recognized for his inspirational leadership and zeal.
Growing up in the inner city
Brown grew up in northwest Washington, DC. “My parents both worked. We were a middle-class family who lived in the inner city. My mother and father promoted strong family values in a very threatening, conflicted environment. My dad worked three jobs to send us to private school.
“Most of the guys I grew up with are no longer with us,” he observes. “One friend of mine went into the Air Force and I joined the Coast Guard. The military was our ticket to better opportunities.”
Brown attended the academically rigorous St. John’s College High School in DC. His approach to choosing a college was to pick up every brochure on the guidance counselor’s rack. “I got interest cards for whatever was there and mailed them all out. It was a blind draw.”
Brown was personally recruited to the Coast Guard Academy (USCGA, New London, CT) by then Lieutenant London Steverson, the second African American USCGA graduate. “Of all the people courting me, he was the only one who came to the house. When I saw him at the front door in full uniform, a Black man, I saw a vision for the future,” Brown states. “He convinced my mother to let me visit the campus and I was hooked.”
Brown entered the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1974. “My class started with 400 students and graduated 167,” Brown says. “Of twenty-two African Americans at the beginning, six graduated. A lot of that was academic challenge, but a lot was also cultural challenge. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were pioneers in a process to transform the Academy culture to become more supportive of diversity.”
He continues, “I had gone to a predominantly white high school so I had already been through the acculturation process. That was probably an advantage I had over my African American classmates at the Academy.”
His original interest was in Marine Science but he missed the cut. Instead, he got his second choice: civil engineering. Brown admits, “At that time, all I knew was that it was about building buildings, but it turned out to be pretty useful.
“I look at system problems like an engineer,” he says. “I found discipline in the engineering profession. Even today, my approach to problem solving uses the FADE process: focus, analyze, develop and execute.”
He graduated from the USCGA in 1978. Brown knew that he did not want to go back to DC. “I knew that to survive, I had to leave,” he says. “It was a mature thought at an immature age.”
Brown has since earned two masters degrees, in civil engineering in 1985 from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and in national resources strategy in 1999 from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces (ICAF, now the Eisenhower School at National Defense University, Washington, DC).
“I always had a technical inclination. But when I got to the Coast Guard Academy, all the personality profiles said that I was geared toward the soft sciences. Even though I love being an engineer, my passion rests with people so maybe the sociologists were right,” he says with a laugh.
Brown mentors “the long blue line,” working hard to help people who are coming up the ranks. “I’m proactive with groups like the civilian advisory board, women’s groups, African Americans, Asians, and Hispanic groups. I’ve shared time with them and stated how important they are to me. From them I get the feedback that when I am visible and successful, they feel empowered.”
Brown has enjoyed several challenging, high-profile assignments during his thirty-six-year Coast Guard career.
From 1999 to 2002 he was the military assistant to the secretary of transportation, when the Coast Guard was still part of the Department of Transportation. “I was in that job for 9/11. After that, I became acting deputy chief of staff for that department.”
He assumed positions of responsibility in Florida, Hawaii and California, where he oversaw counter-narcotics trafficking missions and other operations spanning 73 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean. He served as the military assistant to two U.S. secretaries of transportation and spent three months in Iraq in 2004, leading the restoration of two major ports.
In 2003, he was chief of officer personnel management at the Coast Guard Personnel Command when Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta called, explaining that Ambassador to Iraq Paul Bremer needed “a transportation guy” in Baghdad in two weeks. Bremer was the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq from 2003 to 2004. “He was essentially the president of Iraq at that time,” Brown notes, “and I was his secretary of transportation.”
In Baghdad, Brown was the senior advisor for transportation to the Coalition Provisional Authority, overseeing restoration of transportation systems throughout Iraq. “I followed the FADE process every step of the way. We got Iraqi Airways flying again the last week I was there. We got the trains running and the ports open. I was there for three months, and three months in a war zone is like three years anywhere else. I was a ‘gap guy’ until they found someone else because I didn’t want to walk away from my Coast Guard career.”
“I learned so much about America in a crisis and I respect what we tried to do. I have nothing but respect for the Iraqi people and what they went through,” he reflects.
Brown has been married for thirty-two years; he and his wife have three grown sons. He has learned to make his family part of his profession and his profession part of his family. “I wasn’t good at it back in the early innings,” he admits, “but as I’ve matured, I’ve gotten better.”
Vice Admiral Brown is the third African American to reach flag rank in the U.S. Coast Guard and the first to become a three-star. He has received many medals, awards and commendations.
Brown’s Coast Guard father, Judge London Steverson, USALJ (Ret.) wanted him to become Commandant of the U S Coast Guard. He began to write about the accomplishments and career advancements of Admiral Brown. He published them in a blog online along with pictures. He chronicled all of Admiral Brown’s noteworthy achievements that would be of public interest. These were things that could persuade a Selection Board for Commandant that the time was right to select the Coast Guard’s first Black Commandant.
After Admiral Brown had reached the highest echelons of the officer corps, his assignments and accomplishments became as important to Steverson as rare paintings would be to an art collector. These were the stuff that could sway a selection board and possibly alter the course of American History.
Every Vice Admiral considered for the position of Commandant has been more than qualified for the job. None of the people in the selection process: President of the United States or Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security would be making a decision based on qualifications, or “best qualified”. They would be making a political decision. They would be looking at not only Admiral Brown, but also at his family, his marital stability, the social marketability of his family, the accomplishments and failures of his children, his brothers and sisters. They would consider his entire social fabric.
So, when Admiral Brown had achieved success at something that did not depend merely on his personal skills as a commissioned officer, it was necessary to chronicle the big picture of him as a family man, a loyal husband, and a devoted father. When the Selection Board met to determine the next Commandant they would also be considering for selection, Admiral Brown’s wife (Herminia) and his three sons (Manson Justin, Robert Anthony, and William Mathew).
The Coast Guard motto is semper paratus, Latin for “always ready.” Brown alwaystook that to heart.
Article “At The Top, Vice Admiral Manson Brown of the U S Coast Guard”, Diversity and Careers In Engineering and Technology June/July 2013 On-line Edition, Roberta Renard publisher.
Shapiro, T. Rees, Washington Post, article “Vice Admiral Retires From The U S Coast Guard After As The Service’s Top-ranking Black Officer” , May 14, 2014
Markson, Jerry, Washington Post, article “Lond-delayed Headquarters For DHS In Doubt, Southeast D.C. Project Languishes”, May 21, 2014, p. A-1.