One hundred twenty-five boxes.
That’s the number filled with papers documenting the personal and professional history of Dr. Tommie Brown, a former state legislator and professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
She has donated the papers to the UTC Library Special Collections.
Brown said the papers, which include letters, photographs, newspaper clippings and documents from her years in education and politics—even the original research for her Ph.D. in social work from Columbia University—have a specific message.
“I call it, ‘Yes, you can.’ That’s the idea I want them to have,” she said.
“I was just a little girl who grew up in North Highland Park, and I think this is just another one of thousands of those stories. If I had my way, I would crack open all those stories and let them be told because the more the young people can see and hear and understand ‘Yes, I can,’ then they will try, too.”
Now 88 years old, Brown was a Democratic member of the Tennessee House of Representatives from 1992-2012.
She created the social work program at UTC and was a UC Foundation associate professor of social work from 1971-1998. In 1980, she became head of the program, the first Black woman to head an academic department at the University.
“It was the place that I love with all my heart,” she said. “I met all those wonderful students and faculty, and I like to think I grew along with the school.”
The Tommie F. Brown Academy on 8th St. bears her name.
Carolyn Runyon, director of Special Collections, said Brown “changed things in Chattanooga tangibly.”
“For me, one of the things that’s unique about this is that we’re documenting something in the state of Tennessee that I’m not sure anybody else has,” Runyon said.
Of the 101 women elected to the state legislature in Tennessee, only 16 have been Black, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Runyon said that Brown’s papers may offer a more complete picture of Black women in state legislatures.
The papers also include the legal documents from the famous Brown v. Board of Commissioners of Chattanooga lawsuit in which Brown was the lead plaintiff out of 12 who filed the case in 1987.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs pointed to the all-white Chattanooga City Commission and said the city’s at-large voting didn’t allow fair political representation for Blacks. In 1989, a federal judge ruled the city’s voting procedure was illegal under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Chattanooga stopped its at-large voting system in 1991 and created a mayor-council government with nine separate voting districts, with at least three having a 60-65% majority Black population.
Ann Pierre, president of the Chattanooga chapter of the NAACP, said she was in 10th grade when she met Brown. Since then, she has worked with her on community projects and become her close friend.
Brown’s importance to the Chattanooga Black community and the city itself cannot be overstated, Pierre said, but most people don’t know all she has done.
“They don’t know the importance of what she has done because she’s not a person who always came out and wanted accolades for herself. She has always wanted what was right for others,” Pierre said.