Minnesota's Greatest Generation

John Leslie Brown, Sr.: African American Entrepreneur

John Leslie Brown, Sr. was born in Meridian, Mississippi in 1921, the son of a typewriter mechanic. He enlisted in the army in June 1941 and served with the Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment of the 28th Quartermasters Battalion in Africa, Italy, France, and Germany during World War II. Upon his discharge in July 1945, John Brown chose to pursue a career similar to that of his father, whose advice to "Own your own business – it's the only way to achieve success and respect," helped to shape his future.

John came to St. Paul after hearing about greater opportunities for Black men. He initially found the doors to a sales career closed to him and picked up work where he could, taking a job as a meat packer, and another where he installed refrigerator doors. He landed a job with the St. Paul Typewriter Exchange Company in late 1945 as a Repairman, and rose to the position of foreman before setting out on his own in 1951.

"Raising the capital outlay [for my own business] was rough. Back then people were not really conscious of the Black people around here," said John, pointing out that the White financial community controlled money for small business loans. With the help of his wife, Daisy Beale Brown, he began his business. While bartending at the Minnesota Club, he met Alex Tankenoff, owner of Hillcrest Development. Mr. Tankenoff’s $50 loan allowed Brown, Sr. to start what would become one of the oldest Black businesses in St. Paul. Brown's Typewriter Sales and Service, the forerunner of the more recognized Brown’s Office Machines, started on September 1, 1951 in the basement of the Brown residence on the 500 block of Iglehart Avenue. John spent his time out in the field, making door-to-door service calls while his wife handled the phone calls. Later, the office moved to a storefront, and eventually to 1051 Selby Avenue in St. Paul.

His first important contract came three years later – servicing machines for a government office. He remembered that, even with the contract, "it was tough, because when I'd go to pick up the machines for repair, they'd look and ask, 'Are you the delivery boy?'" John's confidence in his ability to do the job allowed him to rise above such comments and win the trust of his customers.

Discrimination affected another aspect of John Brown's business; it wasn't until 1955 that he was able to land distribution contracts for his first product lines. "I felt a certain prestige...when I got the Adler line. Until then...no one in this business was Black and I felt I had accomplished something that might open things up a little." In 1963 John bought out Gopher Ribbon and Carbon Company and formed Brown's Office Machines, Inc. By the late 1960s, John Brown's company had expanded to handle eight equipment lines, including Addo-X, Inc.; Adler; Clary; Commodore Business Machines, Inc.; Copy-Rite Corp.; National Cash Register; SCM; and Toshiba America. The firm’s accounts eventually included 3M Company, St. Paul Companies, and Northwest Airlines. The company had grown to a staff of 11 employees, including six African Americans and five Whites. Mr. Brown’s oldest son, John, Jr., joined the firm in 1968.

When it came to selling office machines to both White and Black customers, John's sales philosophy boiled down to simply offering the best service possible to all: "If they need your product or service, that's the important thing. It is up to the dealer to make himself known and available to cope with the needs of the community, regardless of the clientele's color."

In August 1998, after resisting the electronic market for years, Mr. Brown, Sr. merged the typewriter business with Wager’s Business Systems on University Avenue. Mr. Brown passed away in May of 1999.

John Leslie Brown, Sr. not only cleared racial hurdles as a successful businessman. He became the first African American to join the Knights of Columbus Council 397 (St. Paul) in 1956, and was a member of the St. Paul Rotary Club from 1977 until his death. He served as a director of the St. Paul Chapter of the American Red Cross, was a board member of the St. Paul Salvation Army, and of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce. An active member of St. Peter Claver Church on Oxford Avenue in St. Paul, Mr. Brown also found time to manage the church bowling alley in the evenings after work.