By Tom Owen, Archivist, Archives and Special Collections
Almost fifty years ago, a young couple moved into a Victorian home in the Crescent Hill neighborhood and a few years later discovered a set of diaries in their attic that had been written over a half-century earlier by a young man who lived in their old house when it was the manse for St. Marks Episcopal Church. Leafing through the sixteen small diary notebooks, they determined the diarist was Hilton Brown, son of the rector of that Frankfort Avenue congregation from 1921 to 1934. Early on, the couple tried unsuccessfully to locate Brown or his kin but continued to lovingly care for their abandoned property throughout the decades even through a downsizing. Now, getting along in years, they are looking for a permanent home for the diaries, asking their son to bring them to me for evaluation for our Archives and Special Collections.
Before I opened the neat black box containing the diaries, I set out to find out more about Hilton Brown, his life and time. In a five hour search, l got a goodly number of hits under his name in the Courier-Journal (historical) database, learning that the family had relocated to Louisville for his Dad’s church job when Hilton was around fourteen, that young Brown had played football at both Male High School and at the University of Louisville, and that the diarist later married and remained in the city at least until just after WWII before moving to Chicago. Then thru Ancestry.com, I determined that Hilton was born in 1907 in Florida and died in the Tampa area at age 69 in 1976. Expanding on his UofL connection, I turned to our University history holdings where I found in our Digital Collections multiple photos of him in our Thoroughbred yearbooks from the late 1920s and several mentions of him in our online student newspapers from those years: the Cardinal News and the UofL News. Finally, I located in our collections a biographical card file on UofL athletes who earned sports letters in the 1920 to 1950 years where I learned more details about Brown’s football career.
I was now ready to consider the historical value of the sixteen Brown diaries, spreading them out in chronological order across a table. The first one was unnumbered and in faded pencil, its entries made over a period of just several months in 1921 by a teen who had just moved to town from Florida. The other fifteen little notebooks were much more legible in ink and sequenced by a roman numeral on the cover, a few cover containing inscriptions that described how the author thought his life had gone during the period within. One read: “in which I have many doubts” and another: “containing many reflections and disappointments.” While there were a few gaps—at least one while Brown worked at a summer camp—those volumes spanned the years from late 1924 to late 1930 chronicling in significant detail a final high school year, four years at the University of Louisville, and entry into the workforce. Several of the volumes contained pages listing the diarist’s male friends with comments about their personality and character or lists of young women and his interest or success in dating them. One entry about date eligibility had “married” written beside many of the names indicating that the list might have been amended retrospectively.
After leafing through several pages in each small volume, I concluded that Archives and Special Collections should accept the couple’s offer to donate the Hilton Brown Diary largely because of their connection to our university. Brown arrived at UofL at a pivotal time, just months after undergraduate students were moved to Belknap Campus following the renovation of the old buildings of the city’s Louisville Industrial School of Reform, an orphanage/reform school, for collegiate use. The bulk of the diary entries cover those four years in which Brown was deeply involved in UofL’s student life on the new campus. The daily notations record the personal introspection and sometimes poignant discomforts as well as the mundane activities of a privileged late-adolescent white male student who spent substantial energy arranging his next dates with multiple young women while longing for a more permanent relationship with an elusive coed named “Gert.” Finally, my appreciation for this window into youthful life in the 1920s was heightened by the seeming ease that Brown and his friends had in acquiring alcohol during national Prohibition. The Hilton Brown Diary finds a permanent home among hundreds of other collections that shed light on the history of the Louisville region and the University of Louisville; clearly, rescuing from obscurity one young man’s 1920s diary does not a history make but, viewed alongside other documentation, a fuller and increasingly more accurate story of our community and university’s past emerges.