Editor’s note: The Urbana Black Heritage Festival will be held at Barbara Howell Park on June 18 from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at 213 E. Market St. This article is one in a series of Heritage stories leading up to the festival.
Do you know the “Mayor of Possumtown”? While the location of that fabled community is not exactly known, the identity of its leader is documented in Urbana history. That was the title often bestowed on a local celebrity as he was introduced to his admiring fans. His name was Arnold B. Brown, and for most of his lifetime, he called 301 East Market Street in Urbana home. Among the homegrown talent of authors, singers, actors and musicians who have come from Champaign County, Arnold Brown’s name has been lost to time. Born in Urbana in 1877, Arnold Brown was the son of Milton and Mary Brown who were pioneer African American residents of the city. By the age of 18, Arnold Brown was performing. It wasn’t long after that he was being touted as a comedic and acting genius.
In the early part of his performance career, he often appeared alongside a cast of other talented local African Americans performing short plays, musical numbers and monologues. Improvisation stand-up comedy is what Brown would become best known for well into the 1920s and 30s. He often took on different topics and characters for his one man shows that played in local theaters in downtown Urbana such as the Orpheum (located on North Main), Market Square (located in the former city hall), the Lyric (located on South Main) and the Clifford (known today as the Gloria). In 1899, he spent a summer season in Pittsburgh where he performed his monologues in a city park in that city.
Brown also competed against popular Minstrel shows in Urbana during his career in the early 20th century. Those variety shows often featured white actors and actresses who often appeared in black face. Brown promoted himself as the “the best real Negro comedian” to make himself stand apart as an authentic and local personality. By today’s standards, some of the shows Brown produced may have raised eyebrows which included poking fun and perhaps promoting stereotypes of Chinese in a comedic duo he performed called the “The Politician and the Chinaman.” Brown left Urbana for a brief time for Pittsburgh where he continued to pursue acting. During a visit to Urbana in 1903, he married Jeanette Hill, and the couple returned to Pennsylvania for a short time before settling back in Champaign County. The couple had no children and Jeanette would pass away in 1913 before she turned 40. Like most performers, Arnold worked odd jobs to make ends meet in between producing and performing his acts. By 1927, both of Brown’s parents had died and they left him a small estate and the home on East Market Street where the family had resided for decades. It was only after Brown had outlived his parents and wife that he was listed as an “actor” as his occupation in the 1930 U.S. Census.
Brown appeared on small stages across Champaign County and in a few other cities in Ohio. Among his characters, monologues and shows he produced are: “Governor Briggs,” “I Am Sorry I Ever Left Home,” “Rastus Peppergras,” “Mississippi in 61,” “The Minstrel Man,” and a “Visit with the President.” He also performed the Rag Time song, “Nobody Knows Where John Brown Went” on local stages in 1909. The same year the song and music were published nationally. Arnold Brown’s end came in 1940 at the age of 62 when he died at the family home on East Market Street in Urbana where the “Mayor of Possumtown” took his final bow. He is buried in Oak Dale Cemetery.