This interview with Frank Braxton took place on two separate Saturday’s in his apartment on Massachusetts Ave., NW. Jasmine Carpenter and Nadith Saibou from St. Martin’s Church at North Capitol and T Street, NW, where Mr. Braxton is a parishioner, contributed questions, shot photos and helped turn an interview into the personal story it became. Read part 1 of 2.
Keep company with the elders, and stick closely to their wisdom. Desire to listen to every godly conversation, and don’t let intelligent proverbs escape you. If you find individuals who are intelligent, get up before dawn to see those people, and let your foot wear out their doorsteps. Sirach 6:34-36
AS: Where did you meet your wife?
Mr. Braxton: I met her on the streetcar. My brother-in-law and I were going up U Street and she happened to get on the streetcar at 23rd and Benning Road. He knew some friends that she knew and they started talking. She was a cute little something and I started talking and I asked her for her telephone number. She resisted at first but I eventually got it. From then on; it was a very, very good relationship. She was very wise for her age. She was about 17 and I was about 19. She was a very wonderful person. She had knowledge way beyond her age. Some people are gifted; she was one of those people. She could sew; she could cook—one of the best cooks you ever could find. She’d buy a whole chicken and cut it up like a butcher. How she learned it I don’t know. Buy a rabbit and she’d cut that up like a butcher. She could sew; in fact she covered that. (He points to the couch) And she made that (He points to the chair I am sitting in). That’s the last job that she worked on.
AS: How did you find St. Martin’s?
Mr. Braxton: My wife was a Baptist originally and so was I. On Saturday’s, Bishop Sheen had a program on television and he had very piercing eyes and he was very interesting to listen to. My wife, for some reason or another, started going to a Catholic Church and she decided that she would become a Catholic. She joined [the Catholic Church] and if she joined I joined. Whatever we did, we wanted to do it together.
AS: Did you travel together?
Mr. Braxton: We sure did. We went to Russia, to Yugoslavia, Greece, all over Europe. Every year we would travel somewhere. She loved that. Once we were in Aruba and they have gambling down there. She wanted to gamble on the one armed bandit. I told her, “Oh, you don’t want to gamble. You won’t win.” But, she wanted to gamble. She put her money in the slot machine and she ran out of money. I said, “ I told you so,” but she said, “I liked it.” I went in my pocket and gave her $50 more. Just because she enjoyed it, I didn’t care whether she won or lost.
When we went to Russia we went from Estonia, the Bay of Finland, all the way down to the southern part of Russia and over the mountains to the Black Sea to a resort area that the big shots had. In fact, it was a 21 day trip.
AS: How did you decide to go to Russia?
Mr. Braxton: I just wanted to see it. Yugoslavia, the same thing.
AS: How were you treated as a traveler, as an American traveler?
Mr. Braxton: We were treated very well. In fact, in Russia wherever we went, out of a group of 20, my wife and I were the only two blacks and we were put at the front of the line.
Then again, I took a large pack of Doublemint chewing gum; that got us into anything we wanted. Just give them a pack of gum and that was it. In Kiev, we went to a theater to see a play, The Blue Danube, and you had to hang up your hat and coat. They had elderly people to do all of that. I gave the man a pack of gum and the lady who took us up to our seat, I gave her a pack of gum and she gave us front row seats in the box overlooking the stage. It was really a good experience.
We went on the subway and they had artwork all along the walls. We went down, down, down on the escalator and we were going so far down that I asked our guide, “How deep is this thing?” She said, “It’s a military secret.” Every time you’d ask a question the answer would be, “It’s a military secret.” They wouldn’t tell you anything. The guide spoke English just as well as I could.
We were in a theater once and a little boy sat beside me. I gave him a pack of gum and we started talking. I couldn’t understand him and he couldn’t understand me. I said, “USA, yeah.” He said, “Boo.” He did not like the United States but he and I became friends even though we didn’t understand one another. We shook hands. It was a good experience.
AS: How did all of your travels and experiences inform your mission in Washington, DC?
Mr. Braxton: I had an urge to give back. It came automatically. I don’t mind doing things for people. I never learned to say ‘No.’ If you asked me to do something, I figured some way to do it. See that large plaque there [points]; it’s from the police department. After I’m dead and gone some outstanding citizen will receive the…read what’s on there.
It says, “Fifth District Citizens Advisory Council Establishes the Frank Braxton Award for Outstanding Community Service presented to Frank Braxton this 20th day of October, 2005.
The one on the right at the top, there, that one is from the Chief of Police, Cathy Lanier. It’s an award only for police officers. They made an exception, the Chief and her dvisory council voted. I’m the only civilian to receive that award.
AS: How do you think St. Martins has changed from when you started attending service to the last time you have been there?
Mr. Braxton: Originally it was a white church. Then, very few whites came. We had two priests; they were white. They did very well; the congregation grew and then they left and we got a black priest and he wasn’t what a priest should be.
We had a school and we eventually closed the school because of a lack of funds and we rented the school building to outside interests. I was called several times because some of the money from the rental of the school wasn’t put into the treasury. I couldn’t believe it at first. Then I was put on the board to look out for the money and I saw some of the funds go missing. [The priest] brought in a friend of his who he said was a deacon and this deacon started staying in the rectory. Several things that he did just didn’t meet the requirements of a priest. Eventually we got rid of him.
They decided to get another priest and I was named to be on the selection committee. Someone said, “I want a black priest.” I said, “I don’t give a doggone what color he is. We want a good priest.” As a result, we got Fr. Kelly. The diocese was about ready to close the church and Fr. Kelly came and we had several people who were holding positions and being paid to do certain things, a whole list of them, who were doing nothing. Everybody was satisfied but Fr. Kelly came and he eliminated a lot of those jobs. Most of those people whose jobs were eliminated left St. Martin’s.
AS: Did he make a lot of enemies?
Mr. Braxton: Yes, but I saw the good that he was doing for the church so I was on his side. I was treasurer of the church for the Holy Name Society. First, I questioned why we had 13 different treasuries in the Church. I saw the good in having only one treasury because wherever there is money there is some glue on some people’s fingers. I sided with Fr. Kelly and I told the members of the Holy Name Society, that we were going to transfer our funds to St. Martin’s. Then, Fr. Kelly started going out and I introduced him around the community.
We had a lot of break-ins and a lot of thugs around the church. I was chair of the 5th District Advisory Council so I could ask the Chief of Police over there to give us more protection. I introduced Fr. Kelly to him and we got better protection and drove away the drug dealers and thieves. Then the people began to see that Fr. Kelly was a good man and the diocese didn’t close the church, because it saw a gradual rise in the people who were joining the church. We all worked together to help it grow.
Fr. Kelly inaugurated a lot of new programs and eliminated a lot of waste. He cleaned up the rectory and made recommendations not only for the good of the church but for the good of the community. All the churches in the community, Catholic, Baptist, whatever, worked together with him. Fr. Kelly would go out and befriend people in the community and welcome anybody. Any organization could use the recreation center to hold meetings. He extended the church to the community. Since the school had failed and the building was there and it was hard to get people to rent the school, he decided that it would be good to put up apartments in its place.
It’s a long procedure to go through but the Chair of the committee to issue the permit was a friend of mine. Of course, whites had moved into the area and a lot of the whites opposed the building. We had a meeting at the school and strangely enough a little black girl was the head of this group of whites, to fight us putting up affordable housing units.
I asked to be the last person to speak at the upcoming meeting. In the meantime, the Chair, who decides whether buildings get approved, he and I were at a funeral and he said, “Frank don’t worry, it will be approved but we’ll make out that we don’t know one another.”
I was the last one to speak at the meeting and I gave that girl a hard time. I called her a Judas. I said, “You remind me of someone in a high place in our government who betrayed all blacks.” They knew who I was talking about.
The building was put up.
By the way, I told the people who were there, “All of you were looking for affordable housing. You went to SW and found out that the cost of housing down there was kind of high. You went to Georgetown and the cost of living was high. You went to NW and the same thing happened there but you just happened to come out here in our neighborhood and the prices out here were affordable and we welcomed you here. We invited you to the churches and the organizations and civic associations. Now, we want to put up a building for affordable housing and you oppose it. Yet, you went all over the city looking for affordable housing. You found it here and you moved here and now you oppose affordable housing, the same thing we are trying to provide for the people of DC.”
As far as St. Martin’s is concerned, Fr. Kelly saved that church. He’s been there longer than any other priest has been at that parish. His outreach program includes anybody and everybody. He will marry anybody. Whatever faith you are, he will marry you. Some Jewish people have been married by Fr. Kelly. One thing I like about him is that whether you put a quarter in the offertory or you put $100 in the offertory he makes no difference between people. I like that.
I have made contributions to the church because I saw his worth and I did it in honor of my wife.
AS: How does you faith play a role in all the things you have done.
Mr. Braxton: I am not the kind of Christian like a lot of other people pretend to be. All I want to be is me. I am not like the Christians who go to church and “hallelujia” and this, that and the other because they are Christians on Sunday but the devil on Monday. With me, what you see is what you get. I didn’t get these things here [plaques for service] by being mean to people or for not helping people. I believe; I do for the church; I do for other people and that’s me. All I ever wanted to be is Frank Braxton.
The church is just a building. What would it be without the people?
AS: What would you be doing today if you were a young man of say, 20?
Mr. Braxton: I wonder. You know that saying about coming to the crossroads, I wonder sometimes about when I made the decision to go to one high school vs. the other, what I would be doing.
I don’t regret going to Armstrong because I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. I probably would have been a lawyer, doctor, policeman, fireman, teacher, whatever. As it turned out…
AS: You were everything.
Mr. Braxton: I ponder over that every once in a while, “What would I have been?”
AS: What are the keys to being a good organizer.
Mr. Braxton: Be understanding and don’t get a big head. Listen to people; listen to the problems that people have. Don’t think that you are a big shot. Also, people will believe in you if you can get results for what they want. If you can’t do it or you can’t get the results people want, tell them the reason why. They want answers.
Then again, keep on trying to solve their problems. That way, they will have confidence in you. The people in the 5th District; they had confidence in me. I was elected to the Democratic State Committee because people believed in me. I told everyone, “I’m not a politician; I’m just working in politics.” A politician will tell you one thing but he can twist it around. I tell it like it is. Do that and people believe you.
AS: Where did you find the inspiration to do what you do?
Mr. Braxton: I don’t know. It just came naturally. As far as my mother was concerned, we were as poor as anybody else in our community but she had a group who considered themselves missionaries. I guess it just came naturally. I was always willing to help somebody, anybody, anywhere. I was always willing to offer a friendly hand.
AS: What would you like St. Martin’s role in the community to be?
Mr. Braxton: The program that is there now, with Fr. Kelly, I hope they continue to keep his way of doing things, involving people and being part of the community, offering the church as a haven for those who don’t have, doing things that bring harmony to the people, in community and encourage mixing of the races. I’m just as human as anybody else; they’re just as human as me.
About the Author
Albin Sikora loves being outside because that is where he makes discoveries: outside of his hometown, outside of his apartment, outside of his comfort zone and outside of his own thoughts. This may be one of the reasons that he is always seeking, always listening and always looking. His passion lies in hearing the stories of those who share our streets but who are just a little bit different from the man, woman or child you would expect to find.