The Autobiography of

Robert Wesley Branch

 

 

 

For the past 15 years, I have earned a gracious living as a television executive; most recently at TV One, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland.  As an executive in charge of production, my TV One credits include In Conversation: The Michelle Obama Interview and TV One Live: The DNC After Party, which was the network’s first foray into live television production, broadcast from the Comcast Media Center during the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

 

Bethesda has been home since April 5, 1996 – Good Friday – when I (once more) left my childhood neighborhood in Forestville, to be closer to Discovery Channel, where I worked as an associate producer.  Located north of Washington, DC, Bethesda lies within Montgomery County, Maryland. The name, Bethesda, is a corruption of the Hebrew "Bethsaida" (Beth-sah-eed-a), a term that means "house of healing" and a biblical place of salutary waters.  The Aramaic words “Beth Hesda” mean “house of mercy”.  Some of the best-known institutions of Bethesda are medical in nature: the National Naval Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health

 

In 1966, Edward William Brooke III of Massachusetts became the first black senator elected by popular vote.  During this era of the Vietnam War, I was born to Robert Lee and Clara Leona Kimbrough Branch at 3:49 AM on Monday, April 25, 1966, at Providence Hospital, in northeast Washington, DC.  Chartered by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861, Providence Hospital today stands as the oldest continuously operating hospital in the Nation’s Capital.

 

Married for four years at the time of my birth, my parents, in April of 1965, had already celebrated the arrival of my sister, Cheryl Lynette.  Thankfully, to this very day, Clara and Sugar (as my father Robert Lee is affectionately known) remain healthy, strong, and still married.

 

Our family moved from Washington, DC to the suburbs of Maryland when I was three.  I grew up in Prince George’s County – named for Prince George of Denmark, consort of Queen Anne.  For the first half of my kindergarten year, I walked to John H. Bayne Elementary School, just a few blocks from home.  The school district in our subdivision of Fairfield Knolls was, for the second half of the school year, redrawn and we were then bused to Ritchie Elementary School, where I matriculated through the sixth grade.

In 1973, my Dad wanted his own business, so he applied for and received a 50K loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration – and opened Sugar’s Liquors.  It was there, on Rhode Island Avenue, in northeast Washington, that I got my first real urban work experience – on weekends in the family business!

 

On April 10, 1976, I was baptized into the Christian faith at Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Washington, DC.

 

While my sister Cheryl and I are first generation Washingtonians, my parents hail from the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  Braddock is a borough located in the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, ten miles above the mouth of the Monongahela River.  The town is named for General Edward Braddock (1695-1755), a British soldier and commander-in-chief for North America during the actions at the start of the French and Indian War.

 

In his high school years, growing up in a section of Braddock below the railroad tracks called “the bottoms”, my father was an exceptional athlete – a near pro basketball player.    Had he been privileged, he would have received the scholarships that, with his natural athletic ability, would have taken his talent to the NBA.  A natural athlete I was not, and but for wanting to please him, I had no desire (during my formative years) to trail in the wake of my father’s athletic prowess.  Nonetheless, I joined the county basketball team of the city of District Heights, only to spend much of the daily practice time fumbling and falling over other players, the court, and myself.  It was at one of those sessions that I think my father finally faced up to my lack of athletic ability, though he never talked to me about my short-lived b-ball career.  Finally, painfully and embarrassingly, I too had to admit that it wasn’t going to happen for me on the court.

At 14, I turned from basketball to books, starting with the Bible.  It wasn’t long before I was reading nearly everything.  Then I began to write.  At home, locked inside my room, I found myself: I saw something in the way I was able to select, collect and present words on paper.  I felt words in my head – whole sentences living inside me.  Then I discovered James Baldwin, and I embraced him as a young boy would an older, respected uncle.  Reading about his life, I felt an instant connection, and an intense desire to put my hand in his and to become a writer, just as he was a writer.  The indwelling creative and compassionate nature that few understood, that many misinterpreted, no longer frightened me.  I had found an example – a man of words living inside him.  After Baldwin came an introduction to Maya Angelou – and I embraced her too, as a young boy would a wise and eccentric aunt, visited during summers in some unfamiliar city.  The two of them – James Baldwin and Maya Angelou – helped me (through their books) to realize that I could, in fact, be saved, that there was hope for me, that my life could have meaning and that maybe I too had something profound to give to the world.  I wanted to be like them.

 

Instead of attending Walker Mill Junior High School, just a few blocks walk from our house, nestled in the Wilburn subdivision, the neighborhood kids were (again) bused – this time, 45 minutes to Clinton, where I attended Surrattsville Junior High School, named after Mary Surratt (1823-1865), the first woman to be executed by the United States government after being found guilty of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.  Mary Jenkins, born in Waterloo, Maryland and schooled in a Catholic female seminary, married John Surratt at age seventeen.  In 1853, the Surratts bought 287 acres of land in Prince George's County – about a two-hour horse ride from Washington.  Surratt built a tavern and a post office, and the property became known as Surrattsville.  (During the Civil War, the tavern apparently served as a safe house in the Confederate underground network.) 

In our early teens, my sister Cheryl and I received from my father a box of 35mm cameras, telephoto lenses and light filters.  We quickly enrolled in a Photography 101 class at Prince George’s Community College.  One of my parents would drop us off there on several evenings after school and one weekend a month during my 9th grade year.  Learning how to compose, shoot and develop photos became a passion and, for many years, I rarely went anywhere without my one of my cameras.

 

When I was coming up, the state of Maryland required all workers to be at least fifteen-and-a-half years of age before obtaining a work permit.  When I turned 15, I volunteered during the summer with the American Red Cross, as a clerk in the admissions office at Malcolm Grow USAF Medical Center on Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs.  The following summer, I took my first paying job, working as a landscaper for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

As a senior at Central Senior High School in St. Pleasant, I took English and an art class in the morning, and headed off to Prince George's Community College for an afternoon computer programming class.  During the second semester of senior year, I participated in the U.S. Stay In School Program, through which I was employed in the afternoons as an office assistant at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

While pursuing an undergraduate degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Maryland, I worked part-time in the evenings as a medical claims examiner for Blue Cross Blue-Shield of the National Capital Area.

 

I began covering local government for the Prince George's County paper in my early twenties.  As a print reporter, I got my first real taste of politics, writing about elected officials from the state capital in Annapolis.  It wasn’t too long before I was also selling commentary and opinion pieces to The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The Washington Afro-American, and The Washington Informer newspapers.

 

At age 21, I began working as a production intern at WETA TV 26 – a Washington PBS affiliate.  It was there I met Sheila Banks, then host of Metro Week in Review, and co-host of This Week in Black Entertainment with Donnie Simpson on BET.  When my internship at PBS ended, Sheila brought me to BET, to continue working on her show there.  I concluded my TV apprenticeship in the newsroom of WRC TV 4 – the Washington NBC affiliate.

 

In November of 1988, I came to work for Jamie Foster Brown as an editorial assistant at SiSTER2SiSTER magazine.  In February of 1989, I accepted a position as host and producer of a radio talk show – ON TRACK – produced by the Washington Urban League (where I served as director of communications) and broadcast on Washington’s WPGC 95.5 FM radio station.  In 1991, I began serving as a public relations specialist for the Bar Association of Montgomery County, Maryland.  In 1992, I signed on as a media relations specialist for Catholic Charities USA.

 

In 1994, I began freelancing in the Discovery Productions Unit at Discovery Communications, Inc.  Eight months later, I became a full-time production assistant in the Special Programming Unit.  Two years to the day later, I was upped to associate producer.  The following year, I became a producer for daytime programming at Discovery Channel, TLC, and Animal Planet.  In 1999, I was promoted to executive producer of daytime programming for Discovery Networks.  In 2002, I became an executive producer in Discovery’s primetime production unit – a position I held until January of 2005.

 

Politically, I am an Independent voter (26% of the voting population), supporting compassionate real-world public policy.