At 78, civil rights trailblazer Tommie Brown says 'the best is yet to come'

At 78, civil rights trailblazer Tommie Brown says 'the best is yet to come'

December 30th, 2012 by Yolanda Putman and Pam Sohn in Local Regional News

Former state Rep. Tommie Brown spends time with her family while celebrating Christmas at a home in the Murray Hills neighborhood recently. Brown served in the Tennessee General Assembly for 20 years before losing her seat in August to state Rep. JoAnne Favors.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.


1992: At age 58, Tommie Faye Brown becomes the first black woman elected as state representative of the 28th Legislative District, replacing Rep. C.B. Robinson after he retires.

1994: JoAnne Favors, later a Hamilton County commissioner, becomes Brown's campaign manager.

1995: Brown, H.H. Wright, Sherman Matthews and Margie Reynolds and others form the 28th Legislative District Community Development Corp. to enhance district residents' lives through economic development and housing.

1998: Brown requests an attorney general's audit of the Department of Children's Services. The resulting study leads to a class-action lawsuit in May 2000 charging Tennessee with violating children's constitutional rights and causing them "irreparable harm."

2002: A new elementary school, the Dr. Tommie F. Brown Academy for Classical Studies, opens in downtown Chattanooga.

2012: Favors defeats Brown in the 28th District race, ending Brown's 20-year career in the Tennessee General Assembly.

She was born during the Depression and grew up in the days when the Chattanooga trolley was for whites only.

She learned social work - when it was simply called love - by following her grandmother from house to house delivering supplies for the needy or helping with the sick.

She got a college education, just like her laborer daddy told her to. In fact, she became Dr. Tommie Brown, with a doctoral degree.

She never married, but not because she wasn't asked.

And when she challenged the city's white power structure in a 1984 voting rights case that changed Chattanooga's form of government to represent all of its citizens, she did as much for equality in Chattanooga as perhaps anyone ever has.

But that wasn't enough.

Nearly 10 years later on a cold January morning, she took the oath of office in the Tennessee House of Representatives, clutching a folded sheet of paper.

Headlined "The Covenant - Tommie's Commitment to the people of the 28th Legislative District," the paper promised her constituents that she would keep them as her only "special interest." And it gave her a blueprint for behavior that kept her above influence trading and state political scandals such as the Tennessee Waltz in 2005, when seven Tennessee lawmakers were indicted on bribery charges.

Now 78, Brown will leave the House after her first ever loss in an election, to fellow House member JoAnne Favors. The two became opponents after Republicans redrew voting lines and merged their two districts.

"The best is yet to come," Brown said last week of the next chapter in her life of service.

"It was an awesome, wonderful 20 years. The best part was having the trust of the people. They believed I knew them and would do my best in their behalf," she said.

Floyd Kilpatrick, a friend and longtime supporter, summed up her work and life this way:

"Brown was the kind of person you talk about that you should be."

The quiet one

Brown smiles at questions about the real Tommie Brown versus the public Tommie Brown.

"My colleagues would shake their heads at me carrying my books and things to study," she said of her reputation as "the schoolmarm."

"They'd say, 'The deals are being cut over here, and Tommie's over there studying."

But Dr. Tommie Faye Brown has never been a wallflower - not even in her earliest introduction to politics.

It was the early 1980s and there was a call for metro government in Chattanooga to consolidate city and county services.

In Brown's social services classroom at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, she began talking with her students about some of them running for election to a 10-member Metro Charter Commission, which was charged with writing a charter for a public vote on metro government.

Instead, the students prevailed on her to consider running.

On the evening after one of her students picked up qualifying papers for her, she got a call from someone with the Unity Group, whose members meet monthly to discuss social, political and community concerns.

The Unity Group's message was that she shouldn't "muddy the waters" because the group had decided longtime civic leader Moses Freeman would run to represent the black community.

"I called C.B. Robinson," she said, referring to the state representative who was the highest-ranking black official in Chattanooga. When she told him of the Unity Group decision, which he had not been part of, "he went through the ceiling," she said. And he backed her.

"It was a tug of war between two powerful sources. I sort of pitted the two against each other. I knew Mr. Robinson was not a part of the process."

In the end, Brown and Freeman both ran and each won a seat on the committee.

"She spoke up whenever she saw a need, so people saw her as having courage and bravery at a time when we were not expected to be brave," Freeman says now of Brown.

Her bold move put her on Robinson's radar screen, but not in his inner circle.

She said he was wary of her, despite the fact that she sealed and mailed many an envelope for him.

"You keep your enemies close, you know? So you'll know what they're doing," she said with smile.

When Robinson became ill and announced his retirement from the General Assembly after 18 years in the House, he selected local educator Frances Fifer as his replacement in the 1992 election.

"He told me he thought about endorsing me, but he was going to have to go with Frances. And I told him I respected him and understood - but I'd see him at the polls," Brown said.

The rest became history.

Brown defeated Robinson's hand-picked successor and took his seat in the Legislature.

"I think people had identified that I was this one uncontrolled person who might have some political aspirations. Remember, I'm moving steadily up in the NAACP. I'm quiet. But when you look up I'm second, then first vice president. And you have to understand the time period. Women weren't really given [respect] - I remember being downtown and one of the white commissioners said, 'We need to get her married,' because I was raising issues."

Becoming a person

Then began another chapter of Tommie Brown's life.

"I always say I was born to run - the seeing of the helping hands, the love of family. ... I never woke up one day and said I want to be a politician. I am always in the next phase of becoming a person."

Born on June 25, 1934, in the Rome, Ga., area, Brown grew up in Chattanooga's Highland Park.

"I never knew we didn't have much. We'd never heard of welfare."

She was a first child and first grandchild. She said she learned to understand baseball sitting in her father's lap, listening to games on the radio. He worked for a milk company, where he fired boilers and cleaned the building.

Her sister, three years her junior, died at age 34 of a rare disease. Her baby brother Phillip, now 70, lives in Michigan. She now lives in Fort Wood.

But in 1993 when Brown stepped into the General Assembly, she was in for an eye-opening experience.

Scandals in the state House had made headlines before. In 1979, the Ray Blanton "pay for pardon" scandal had erupted. A decade after she joined the Legislature, the Tennessee Waltz federal investigation would begin.

Both scandals exposed influence-peddling and bribery in state politics.

"There's an illusion of power," Brown said. "First you have to be honest with yourself. You have to know who you are, and you have to be grounded.

"If you like yourself, you have to ask yourself what does it take to stay that way."

When the usual head-turning offers from lobby groups didn't sway Brown, those she ignored tried a different tack.

"The argument they had for me was that this [the House of Representatives] is such a waste for you," she recalled.

State representatives are paid $20,000 a year, plus per diem. With a doctorate, she certainly could have commanded a better salary elsewhere and had more free time. Over her legislative years she had chaired the House Higher Education subcommittee and the Tennessee Black Caucus, as well as serving on 14 other committees.

Brown said she thinks an undercover FBI agent working the Tennessee Waltz sting did once try to entice her to sell her vote. She gave him a big-eyed look of sincere blankness as she asked why she should support the bill he represented.

"I told him the legislation didn't make sense to me," she said.

Ultimately the sting resulted in the convictions of seven Tennessee lawmakers, including Democratic Sen. Ward Crutchfield, of Chattanooga; Republican Rep. Chris Newton, of Cleveland; and Hamilton County Commissioner William Cotton.

What the agent likely didn't realize as he tried to lure Brown was something many local politicians - including her one-time campaign manager JoAnne Favors - already knew.

"I've always had difficulty asking for money," Brown said. And she also has a problem with owing anyone.

"He who pays the piper calls the song," Brown said. "My commitment had been to the people."

In 2000 when she was diagnosed with uterine cancer, she questioned what she called her "lonely" course into lawmaking.

"I said if I'd known then what I know now, I would not have wasted this time," she said.

But a House colleague she declined to name set her straight, she said.

"You're the conscience of the Legislature," he told her.

On marriage

"My dad always said, 'Get your education. They cannot take that away from you.'"

But shortly before she was to leave for college, a sweetheart who was headed for military service proposed.

Her parents told her it was her decision.

In thinking over the possibilities, she recalled that the sweetheart had smiled and told her she could iron his shirts.

The memory still makes her wrinkle her nose in disbelief.

"That might have turned me off, too."

When she told her parents she had chosen to go to college instead, they told her she had made the right decision.

Over the years, she said, she turned down other offers, as well.

Somehow none just seemed right. And there was the problem of dealing day after day with social issues created by soured marriages.

"A lifetime in social work will make you think twice," she said.

Instead she kept concentrating on her education and her drive for social and civic work.

From Dillard University in New Orleans, where she earned her bachelor's degree, she went on to receive her master's degree in social work from Washington University in Saint Louis. She then earned her doctoral degree from Columbia University.

When she came back to Chattanooga in 1957 or 1958, James Mapp and his wife recruited her to become active in the NAACP.

In 1970 she became the first black to be honored with the National Association of Social Workers' National Social Worker of the Year Award.

And in 1984, when she filed the lawsuit to change Chattanooga's form of government, she knew she eventually would run for office.

Favors, who will take Brown's seat on Jan. 15, and who formerly represented the 29th Legislative District, said she still admires Brown.

"But we all have to know when it's time to fold," Favors said. "You know when relationships are changing and you don't plan on staying there [political office] forever."

Proudest moments

Despite tough fights in the General Assembly and occasional death threats in response to her stances on issues ranging from gangs to flags, Brown said she has enjoyed her life's work and its occasional "miracles" of "school-marm" research in the name of lawmaking.

"But probably what I'm proudest of is my role in dealing with the history of blacks in the Legislature."

From 1873 until 1897, 14 black men served in the General Assembly. No other African-Americans were elected to the Tennessee statehouse until 1964.

On Capitol Hill, Brown turned up her nose at the usual "soul food" day in the General Assembly. Instead, she put together an educational program on African-Americans in the Legislature that she said many lawmakers simply walked out of because they weren't interested.

Eventually, she and other state officials turned the program into a website that students anywhere can view any time. It even includes lesson plans for teachers.

Her friend Kilpatrick said Brown is always trying to "give back to the community."

"Once she got her education, she came back and invested her talents in uplifting the standard of living for the people whom she grew up around. She could have gone anywhere in the country and worked, but she came back to her community," he said.

Joe Rowe, vice president of the Chattanooga Hamilton County NAACP, said Brown was always very focused on her constituents.

"Her greatest joy came from meeting the needs of people who put her in office. That was her profession, her hobby, her life."

But he knows it also was her joy.

"You could see a glimmer in her eyes when she would take on the mainstream establishment and debate for her people," Rowe said.

Brown couldn't agree more.

"If I had it to do over, I'd do it my way again," she said.