Vernon Wilbert Bown (1917-2012)

July 2, 2012

New York Times, October 16, 1954.

One of the last surviving veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Vernon Bown, died of pneumonia at a VA hospital in Martinez, California, on March 23, as reported by his son Ricardo.

Born in rural Wisconsin, Bown went to Spain in 1937 and saw action with the MacKenzie-Papineau battalion until the volunteers were repatriated in 1938. During World War II, he served in merchant marines.

During the more “peaceful” 1950s, Bown’s politics brought him national attention. “All of the situations and struggles I have participated in throughout my life have stemmed pretty much from the same reason I went to Spain: my extreme dislike, and yes, hatred of oppression…. I’ve always felt a kinship with the oppressed.”

While working as a truck driver in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1954, around the time the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Brown decision denying the legality of racial segregation in schools, Bown read a newspaper story about community protests against a black family that had purchased a home in an all-white neighborhood. Bown volunteered to live in the house to discourage further violence. He was lucky not to be there when a bomb exploded, damaging the house.

Segregationist officials blamed the attack on a Communist plot to instigate racial turmoil, and when investigators found communist literature in Bown’s room, he became the prime suspect. “I have gradually come to the conclusion that Negro people have been pretty badly treated in this country,” he told a grand jury investigating the bombing. For these opinions, Bown was held in jail on a high bond for six months on charges of sedition. “My freedom was gone. My job was gone,” Bown said. “There was nothing left but to fight.” But not until the Supreme Court ruled that state sedition laws were unconstitutional was Bown released in 1956.

Five years later, he was among a group of demonstrators arrested in San Francisco for protesting hearings held by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Among those arrested with him was his second wife, Spanish Civil War nurse Ruth Davidow.

Bown eventually retired in his hometown, Minong, Wisconsin. He grew his own garden and kept his own bees to make honey. He enjoyed going on walks and dancing at the senior center as often as he could.

Only four U.S.-born vets are known to ALBA to be still alive.

Peter N. Carroll is Chair Emeritus of ALBA


One Response to “ Vernon Wilbert Bown (1917-2012) ”

  1. Nell Lancaster on October 14, 2022 at 1:15 pm

    The last paragraph brought tears to my eyes. It’s important to tend plants and dance, and to throw yourself whole-heartedly into fighting oppression. Thank you, ALBA