The Gift

New Orleans native Warren Brown needed a kidney, and his Washington Post colleague Martha McNeil Hamilton had two. Their story, just published in the new book Black and White and Red All Over, is a parable of friendship and integration.



He was dying. For almost five years, reporter Martha McNeil Hamilton watched her friend and colleague, Warren Brown, suffer in the throes of kidney disease. Slowly but steadily, his kidneys had lost the ability to remove toxins from his blood. In essence, his body had turned on him and was poisoning him. He adjusted his diet, difficult for any man, but particularly onerous for someone born and raised in New Orleans. He went through batteries of tests and a daily regimen of drugs. And when it became clear that his kidneys weren't responding to the dietary changes and medication, he had a catheter implanted in his chest for emergency dialysis.

As he awakened from the surgery, his wife, Mary Anne, explained to him the need for dialysis and the necessity of a kidney transplant. She would give him one of hers. For a while, life returned to normal. But then Mary Anne's transplanted kidney began to fail due to a common but deadly virus; Brown was back to the waiting game of dialysis treatment.

Dialysis can prolong life, but it can't sustain it indefinitely -- patients use the machine until a donor kidney is found. Or until death. Warren needed a kidney; his friend, Martha, had two. She offered and he accepted. And it didn't make any difference that she was white and he was black.

In their new co-authored book, Black and White and Red All Over, Warren Brown and Martha McNeil Hamilton tell of their disparate yet similar Southern roots: his childhood in New Orleans, and hers in Houston, Texas. They relate their meeting at the Post as reporters in a culturally evolving newsroom, and describe their growing careers and families. Finally, they reveal how the workplace, which they describe as "probably the most integrated place in the United States," often produces lifelong friendships.

Warren Brown grew up in New Orleans during the 1950s. Segregation was openly practiced, and a cloud of racism permeated everything. Not only did this severely limit African Americans, but it was confusing -- particularly for children, since many black and white families lived so close to one another.

"We were living on North Roman Street down in the Ninth Ward," remembers Brown during a phone interview from his home in Arlington, Va. "Our house was bordered on one side by a black family, and a white family with several kids on the other side. Now the white kids never came on our yard to play, which was separated from theirs by a fence, and we never went in their yard. We did play together, but they played on their side of the fence, and we played on our side of the fence. We had games between the fence, and we would talk to one another."

These conversations ended when the white girls reached puberty and both families became concerned that this could only lead to trouble. "You couldn't do anything that could be construed as sexual, which in New Orleans didn't mean anything good since it involved a black man and a white woman," Brown says.

Later on, the Brown family moved to a home on Clouet Street, in an all-black neighborhood. But the move meant another challenge for Brown's parents, due to the close proximity of the Desire Housing Project.

"We were never allowed to go anywhere near Desire," Warren Brown recalls. "My parents did everything in their power to keep us away because they concluded, as my mother would put it, 'They might be my color, but they're not my kind.' I always thought that was an awful thing for her to say, but from her perspective, she was trying to say that, 'We are giving you an education, and we expect you to have values. We don't see the same thing happening over in the Desire Housing Project. All we see back there are police cars, dope dealers, and prostitutes.' Now that's of course a pretty cardboard view of reality, but they were trying to protect us from white racism and black crime."

Warren's father, Daniel Thomas Brown Sr., was a well-respected science teacher in the city's black public high schools, and his mother, Lillian Gadison Provost-Brown, was a switchboard operator at Xavier University. They turned to the Catholic church to educate their children, with the kids going to black Catholic grammar schools and eventually attending either Xavier University Preparatory or St. Augustine High School. The missionary priests and nuns that taught Brown were mostly white -- a detail Brown says was lost on him at the time.

"I never thought of the Holy Ghost Nuns Order as being white -- I thought of them as 'Sister Irene' or 'Sister Jennifer.' Because that's the way the way they always dealt with me -- as a Catholic boy."

However, discrimination was not absent among Catholics, and one particular event, recounted by Brown in Black and White, reminded him that his education could take him only so far, even in the sanctuary of the church.

It was on a Sunday. Warren and his brothers were running too late to attend Holy Redeemer, their family's regular church. Instead, they walked to nearby St. Mary's, a white Catholic church. As was the custom, blacks were allowed to attend Mass in white churches as long as they remembered to sit in separate sections, and to receive Holy Communion only after the white congregation had done so.

Brown sat with his brothers, but as the priest and the altar boy prepared to give out the hosts, the 11-year old boy, reacting to what he saw as a ridiculous custom, stepped ahead of the white communicants. He knelt at the Communion rail only to be ignored by the priest and altar boy until they had served all of the whites. Moments later, the priest offered Brown the host. "No thank you," the boy replied. Brown didn't look back to see how the priest took his protest; he returned to his seat, where his oldest brother, Danny, slapped him in the back of the head in anger.

Brown says the real lesson occurred for him when he returned home later that morning. His father, upon learning of the incident, severely admonished his son saying, "You could've gotten yourself and your brothers killed or arrested. What if someone knew you were my son? I could lose my job. You're man enough to pull a stunt like that? Are you man enough to feed this family?"

Fortunately for Brown, it was a question he never had to answer. He graduated from St. Augustine High School and, because his mother was an employee at Xavier University, he was given a full scholarship. He became involved with the school paper, The Xavier Herald, and received his degree in 1969. Upon graduation, he accepted a job as a news clerk at The New York Times and married Mary Anne, his college sweetheart.

Brown took various jobs as he matured as a journalist, including a brief return to New Orleans as the States-Item's first full-time black reporter. Eventually, he became part of the upper echelon of the journalism world with his hiring by the Post in 1976. At the time, the Post was, as Brown says in the book, "on the hunt for 'qualified' blacks ... and 'qualified' women." This was partially due to two lawsuits filed against the Washington Post with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1972. In both suits, one by a group of the paper's black reporters, and the other by women in the Post newsroom, the paper was charged with discrimination. This led to the hunt, and, although the expedition was often misguided in its hiring practices, it brought together reporters Warren Brown and Martha McNeil Hamilton.

By the time Brown was hired by the Post in 1976, Martha Hamilton had already spent four years at the paper. Her employment, like Brown's, was based on both affirmative action and her abilities as a journalist. She had worked as a reporter with the Newark News and then for a union newspaper, The Machinist, where she felt discriminated against and was relegated to the "Lunch Box" column or captions for "Miss Union Maid." Later, she was a writer for the Agribusiness Accountability Project, an organization that sought to protect family farmers from corporate agriculture. It was the kind of work history that not only prepared her as a journalist, but reveals her Southern-liberal roots as well.

Hamilton was born and raised in a Houston neighborhood where the racial miasma was as pervasive as any Southern city. But in Houston, neighborhoods were strictly segregated; there was very little contact between races.

"It's hard to explain unless you grew up with it just how absolutely mindless the racism was," recalls Hamilton during a phone interview from her desk at the Post. "It was so much like breathing in and breathing out. What was remarkable was if you didn't say anything. My family was, for our neighborhood and our time, the exception and not the rule. The weird thing back then was that there was an opprobrium, 'nigger lover.' As if not hating was a bad thing."

Her parents, Evelyn Sims McNeil and Bruce McNeil, were active Democrats and would not tolerate racism in the house. As far as they were concerned, integration was the law of the land, Hamilton says. However, considering that their daughter never sat in one integrated classroom during grade school or high school, it was a battle that the segregationists were winning. Sure, her family didn't use hateful language and they didn't agree with the worldview of their neighbors, but Martha nonetheless grew up in an all-white environment.

Most of her high school classmates didn't attend college, but Hamilton enrolled in the University of Texas at Austin in 1963. And even though less than one half of one percent of the student body was black, Hamilton was able to further explore her belief in racial equality. She attended lectures by speakers such as Ralph Bunche, an African-American United Nations assistant secretary and peace activist, and at one point dated a black graduate student -- much to the collective horror of her neighbors back in Houston.

Still, it wasn't until Hamilton joined the Post that she had the opportunity to work with black peers. Even though she had always been pro-civil rights, she was unsure how to act around her black associates. Hamilton describes the situation in the book: "In conversations with black colleagues at the Post, I alternated between a gee-whiz-I'm-actually-having-a-conversation-with-a-black kind of incredulity and fear that I would say something wrong. Was it more polite to pretend I didn't notice that they were black?"

Hamilton began to feel more at ease with her associates, but nevertheless the Post newsroom was not a congenial place to work. Editors didn't normally mentor new reporters; people were too busy to say hi. In what the authors describe as the "intensely competitive universe of the Post," bright new star reporters often flamed out, and by the end of the 1970s, both Hamilton and Brown found themselves floundering.

It was then that Frank Swoboda, editor of the Business section, scooped them up. The Business section staff was atypically friendly and personable; birthdays and any special event they could think of were celebrated with cakes, people laughed, and best of all, write Brown and Hamilton, Swoboda "didn't destroy egos. He built them."

Throughout the ensuing years, Hamilton, Brown and Swoboda became close friends. It wasn't instantaneous, and it wasn't always easy. In 1984, Swoboda was diagnosed with leukemia, and Hamilton was one of the first people on the Post to whom Swoboda confided the news. Swoboda had his spleen removed in 1986, underwent a long recuperation, gave up his editing duties, and returned to reporting. The decision led to his working on stories with both Hamilton and Brown, and to his sitting next to them in an area he affectionately titled "the Elder Pod."

Meanwhile, Brown and Hamilton were going through problems of their own. In 1991, Brown had to ask that his son, Tony, who suffers from chronic epilepsy, be committed to a mental facility. Distracted by the strain of the situation, Brown often would forget to tell editors of his whereabouts; Swoboda and Hamilton would cover for him. Many times, Hamilton would listen when Brown would tell her what was happening with his son. And when Hamilton's daughter, Sarah, was hospitalized for psychiatric problems, Hamilton was able to turn to Brown, who could empathize with her suffering.

"When life gets scary, make a joke out of it," is the code of the Elder Pod. So when Brown, already under a doctor's care for high blood pressure and kidney problems, was admitted to Georgetown Hospital's intensive care unit for extremely high levels of potassium that almost caused him a heart attack, the Pod taped a photo of bananas to his computer screen. And the fact that it was Brown himself who spiked his potassium levels by ingesting large quantities of orange juice and bananas only made the news staff laugh harder.

They began running out of jokes as Brown's condition worsened. Hamilton offered to be tested as a possible donor, but Mary Anne had already proved to be an acceptable match. Brown went through six months hooked up 12 hours each week to a dialysis machine. In July 1999, he received the transplant surgery; Swoboda, from the hospital, would provide surgery updates for Hamilton back at the office. Six weeks later, Brown was back at the Post.

Already by May 2000, there were signs that the transplanted kidney from Mary Anne was failing. Slowly, the kidney was being done in by a polyoma, a virus found in most humans, but usually suppressed by the immune system. But Brown's immune system was severely compromised at the time due to the large amounts of anti-rejection drugs he was taking. Why was rejection such a concern? Because Brown is African American.

At least, he thought he was. Due to usually having stronger immune systems than whites, black transplant recipients will often reject the transplanted organ. Heavy doses of anti-rejection immunosuppressants are regularly prescribed, which is fine if you are purely African American. Brown isn't. Like many blacks from the South, he is a mixture of several ethnicities: Irish, American Indian, West Indian, French and Madagascan. It was a case, as Brown sees it, where he was medicated as a race rather than as an individual. Like a lot of stereotyping, it didn't work.

Brown had to go back on dialysis, and he had to give his wife the painful news. He was losing the kidney that she had given to save his life. His condition worsened. His feet swelled grotesquely, he was constantly tired, his weight dropped and he was scared. After having his hopes rise and fall with a potential donor who wasn't enough of a match, Brown was approached by Hamilton.

The surgery took place in November 2001, and, despite a few complications, was a success. Transplant surgery has improved dramatically in the past ten years -- partially due to the development of the same immunosuppressant drugs that killed Brown's first donated kidney. Plus, it is no longer required that the donor be related, meaning that more live donors are now available. However, according to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients, in 2001, 2,834 people died while waiting for a kidney donation -- and the number of patients on the waiting list increased by 8 percent. These numbers are not lost on Hamilton and Brown, who believe that more education is needed for the public in order to increase the live and cadaver donor pool.

But the authors say it is a mistake, as is now being suggested, that donors or their families be paid for transplants. "I don't like the idea at all," Brown says. "I went through dialysis for six months before the first transplant, and six months before the second. Some of the people that I'd seen while waiting for the first kidney were dead by the time I went to dialysis a second time. But the problem with organs for cash is that the people who died waiting for kidneys, between my first and second round of dialysis, wouldn't even had a chance in a paid situation because it would have went to the highest bidder. A lot of folks on dialysis are poor and minorities. The current system is more democratic -- at least they have a shot at getting it."

And if more people came forward like Hamilton, fewer people of any class or color would have to go on a list. It's a sacrifice -- but so are many of the greatest gifts.

Immediately following the surgery, Brown, still groggy, received a phone from Cortland Milloy, a columnist for the Washington Post, who inquired, "Did Martha give you her kidney because you're black?" As soon as Hamilton found out, she called Milloy. "I responded by calling Cortland up and saying, 'I would have given Frank [Swoboda] a kidney and he's white. I gave Warren a kidney because he's my friend and he was dying,'" she says.

But the question of race kept coming up again and again, which is why Brown and Hamilton wrote the book. They are journalists; they present the facts. They're not color-blind -- she's white; he's black. And the facts add up even for a couple of hard-nosed reporters.

Says Brown: "I was saved by a white woman, who gave me a kidney; a black chief surgeon, Dr. Lynt Johnson, who is brilliant; a Korean surgeon, Dr. Lu; and my nurses, who are Palestinian. And my primary care doctor, Dr. Devra Marcus, is Jewish. If all those people can get together to save a life, why are we trying to kill one another?"

Martha McNeil Hamilton visits Warren Brown three days following the surgery that transplanted her kidney into his body. - BRAD WILSON FROM BLACK AND WHITE AND RED ALL OVER
Martha McNeil Hamilton, right, as a child, with her brothers and sisters in Houston. Although her parents would not tolerate racism, Hamilton nonetheless grew up in an all-white environment. -  - BRAD WILSON FROM BLACK AND WHITE AND RED ALL OVER
Warren (in white coat) and brother Bobby, in front of Holy Redeemer Catholic Church. Growing up, the family could also attend a nearby white church -- if they remembered to sit in segregated pews. - BLACK AND WHITE AND RED ALL OVER
  • Black and White and Red All Over
  • Warren (in white coat) and brother Bobby, in front of Holy Redeemer Catholic Church. Growing up, the family could also attend a nearby white church -- if they remembered to sit in segregated pews.
  • The Washington Post on Black and White and Red All Over

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