By Janice K. Neal-Vincent,
and Jackie Hampton,
Famous writer Langston Hughes once asked the question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” One Mississippi woman can now answer: “No matter how long; you don’t give up.
It was official, Dec. 4, 2020. A dream had finally become reality. “That morning while at work, an email alert popped up from University of Southern Mississippi President Dr. Rodney D. Bennett,” said Gail Hargrove Marshall Brown. “I thought why would Dr. Bennett be emailing me? So, I immediately opened it and realized that it was his congratulatory letter to all the December 2020 graduates. The actual ceremony had long been cancelled due to COVID-19. Therefore, I was not expecting any special recognition.
Brown, a Clinton resident who works in her hometown of Lexington said, “When I actually saw my name, I ran down the hall and [told a few people] I actually had earned my Ph.D. I could not fight back the tears of joy and humbleness.”
She stressed that she is grateful to God. “I could feel all those words of encouragement and prayers expressed for me.”
Brown had earned her doctorate in a field she loves: mass communication with an emphasis in public relations.
What’s somewhat unique about Brown’s earning what seems to be simple to many was that she met with enormous challenges, and the span of time between her last academic degree: 37 years.
Brown obtained her B.A. from Mississippi Valley State University in 1980, and her M.S. was Jackson State University in 1983. Having experienced a long span between receiving the master’s and the Ph.D., she urges students to “go all the way” in pursuit of their education. “Don’t wait too late,” she said. “Do it while your mind is still fresh. I think I was older than everybody in my graduate classes, including the professors,” she chuckled.
Throughout her journey to pursue her doctorate, Brown encountered a number of obstacles. A wife and mother, she was the caregiver of her father who battled Alzheimer’s and succumbed. Her mother who never recovered from a nervous breakdown had prior become a patient of a nursing home in Holmes County. Her mother developed multiple underlying conditions (including dementia) that eventually led to her death.
Because of what her father, mother and other relatives went through, Brown has spent the past decade as an advocate and a board member respectively in the fight against Alzheimer’s, the nation’s 5th leading cause of death among those 65 and older (CDC.gov).
She and her husband, Edison Brown Jr., worked through many household economic setbacks. She traveled extensively from her Clinton residence to Hattiesburg. A halftime student, she endured many sleepless nights traveling Highway 49 S. She thought she often saw “black dogs” running across the highway. Her husband informed her “that those were not black dogs. He explained she was in sleeping modes. It was often a dangerous ride with inclement weather many times. One night in such weather, barely able to see, she discovered that she was driving too close to the side of an 18-wheeler.
The Brown’s only child, Edison III, often accommodated his mother to the USM campus. “I am very proud of her. It took a while to get things moving but she toughed it out by working extremely hard,” Edison said. Edison added that he is now a music major at USM because of his mother’s influence.
Brown recalled that one of her co-workers, and a friend in whom she had confided about her trials in pursuing this doctorate degree, encouraged her to persist. “She told me I had come too far and you can’t give up now, Ms. Gail,” Brown recalled. Unfortunately, her friend, a retired educator, became a victim of the pandemic.
The USM family was also encouraging. “God was really with me. I had an outstanding dissertation committee, but they were disciplined. They were professional educators who expected me to burn the midnight oil to meet deadlines,” Brown stated as she reflected on moments of difficulty.
“It wasn’t an easy journey,” said Dr. Fei Xue, her dissertation chair. “She was working full-time while pursuing a doctoral degree. A few times she had to stop and take care of other things at work and in her family. But, she never once said she wanted to give up. She was determined to finish what she started. I’m am so glad she did it. We are all very proud of her.”
“When you don’t know my story, you can’t understand my glory. I have to give credit to my grandmother, Beatrice Randall Marshall. She told me she only received an 8th grade education.”
Marshall, according to Brown, was a strong African American woman who encouraged her ten children and her grandchildren to strive to reach positive goals. “She was a strong woman who happened to be an African American. I called her mama. She said she could’ve been a church school teacher by the virtue of completing the 8th grade,” Brown said.
Brown started out desiring to become a journalist. She discovered along the way that she was more concerned about people. “In public relations you can put your best foot forward and know how to deal with crisis management. You build images, brands and reputations [from behind the scenes],” she explained.
Brown talked about the limited number of African Americans in the field of public relations. “We don’t have a lot of African Americans, but this needs to change. It could be that there’s not enough information about [public relations], and we tend to shy away from it. It’s left up to the industry and those who are educating students to diversify it,” surmised Brown.
Beyond the few African Americans in public relations, Brown noted the disparity of African American Ph.D.s by referencing information from an article published in The Atlantic that indicates the following percentages in Ph.Ds: 87.9% white and 8.3% African Americans; 2.6% Asian Americans and 5.7% Hispanic Latinos. (https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2019/04/lack-of-black-doctoral-students/587413/).
Brown, a former editor for The Mississippi Link newspaper who occasionally freelances and consults with the paper, enjoys serving in the nonprofit sector. She has served as project director (with some PR responsibilities) for the Community Students Learning Center (CSLC) of Lexington, MS since August 2012. Her responsibilities include assisting her executive director Beulah Greer oversee a myriad of programs and services to help the citizens and youth of Holmes County and beyond. “I am grateful to Mrs. Greer and the entire CSLC team for their prayers and support,” she said.
The Mississippi Link copy editor Minnie Garrett said, “Brown is grounded in her faith and allows that virtue to direct her spiritually and in the workplace.”
Garrett continued, “Her example encouraged us all to do our best. While working at The Mississippi Link, we observed her balance a career with caring for her father who suffered with Alzheimer’s, earning that master’s degree studying nights and weekends and enjoying a committed life at her church. We are privileged to call on Brown for writing a story or mentoring interns as they pass through The Mississippi Link. She still manages to fit us in her busy schedule.”
Speaking of Brown’s faith, she attributed any and all accomplishments to God. Her favorite saying is “To God Be The Glory.” In addition to her family, she heavily credits her “history-making” pastor, Rev. Dr. Audrey Lynne Hall, and the Holy Temple Missionary Baptist Church family, for giving her that constant push toward the finish lines with prayers, calls, etc. Brown serve as deaconess, chairperson of the Public Relations Ministry, the Homeless Ministry Outreach, and wherever she is asked to served at Holy Temple.
“I told her that the Ph.D. she earned belongs to all of us,” said Mother Marshia Smith, a Hattiesburg Native.
“She is right,” Brown said. “My folks back home in the Rosebank and Mt. Olive communities, relatives, dear friends and classmates around the nation were praying and rooting for this ‘old soldier.’”
When asked about her vision five years from now, Brown commented, “I hope to have grown, with the grace of God, our family’s homebased public relations consulting firm, “Help Meet,” LLC to brand recognition. That brand will include a reputation of offering its clients ‘the epitome of the personal touch’ in service, even when virtually necessary. I want our business to truly live up to its God-given name ‘Help Meet,’ that’s who we are from the heart: helpers.”
Projecting further, the visionary imagined that she would be “most importantly, teaching online – part-time – students what I know and love about public relations, and how it can be effectively used as a strategic communication process to help companies, institutions/organizations, groups and individuals to build brands and mutual positive relationships with their publics.” Brown said her dissertation study re-emphasized that “students learning writing effectively across multi-media platforms” is key among any other academic need.
Although born in Virginia, her home is in Mississippi. “Despite its checkered past, the Magnolia State has some great people. Sure, positive changes are needed and I would love to be an agent of some of those changes. I love Mississippi and don’t regret living here,” she said.