Caruso Brown: The history teacher

Photo: Elli Williams Photo: Elli Williams

“You can open most any book and read a history of Charlottesville and not get a sense of the African-American presence. Then you hear the oral histories about the thriving communities that existed, like Little Egypt over in the Proffit Road area and many areas here in town where there were five or six streets that really understood community, educated together, churched together, took care of each other.”

Those are the words of Caruso Brown, by day the financial administrator for the Region Ten Community Services Board, and any other time of day a playwright, minister, genealogist, and, in the words of a friend, “a positive workaholic.

Brown grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, but attended Virginia State University, in part because his family’s roots in Buckingham County can be traced back to the 1790s. “When I think of Virginia as being my home, I think beyond just my present life to my existence in terms of us as a people,” Brown said.

Brown arrived in Charlottesville as a newlywed in 1979. With his friend Julian Burke, he started the African American Genealogy Group in 1990. Since then, tracing the histories of the area’s black families and communities has been an absorbing passion for Brown. He speaks with a quiet voice and thinks hard before he answers a question. Genealogy for him is not just a pastime, it’s an act of reclamation.

“When you read the history of Charlottesville with Thomas Jefferson and the whole bit, it’s rich as can be. I mean what is there that a community wouldn’t be proud of?” he said. “Unless you don’t have a presence in that history. And what I’ve found out about Charlottesville is how rich the African-American history is.”

Perhaps Brown’s most consuming passion is the community at Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church, established originally at the intersection of Main and Ridge streets in 1867. He is an associate minister at Mt. Zion and has served as drama ministry leader at the church since the late ‘80s, staging over 60 productions by his estimation, often dealing with themes of black history and faith.

“I’ve got lots of passions and they all burn hot,” Brown said. “If I’m not here at Region Ten, I’m writing plays or directing plays or working on the genealogy. And if it’s not that, I’m at the church or I’m working with the kids in some capacity. All of those things are things that I cannot put on the shelf, the files stay open all the time.”

Brown has spent 28 years at Region Ten, working for the people in the community who need the most help to live fulfilling lives. It’s the type of job that screams burnout. But his work is only one facet in a fuller life with a unified mission.

“I find that anytime that I have a minute, that someone else might see as a time to relax, I’m working,” he said. “The reason it doesn’t feel like being a workaholic is that it’s positive work and it’s what brings me joy.” Amen.