Dorothy Brown is the first black woman elected to the Tennessee General
Assembly and the first African American to be elected to that body since
Reconstruction, more than 100 years ago. She is also the first woman
to receive a medical degree in general surgery from Meharry Medical College
in Nashville, Tennessee.
Dorothy Brown's early childhood and education gave little indication
of her path breaking activities in Tennessee's medical and political history.
She was placed in an orphanage in Troy, New York at the age of five months,
and remained there until she was 13 years old.
Her early education was uneven. She had to quit school between
grammar school and high school to work, and again between high school and
college to save enough money for college.
"In looking back over my career," says Dr. Brown, I can say that surely
I have been on God's highway ever since I came into the world. Because
it seems that every time I would get a little discouraged and say, maybe
I can't make it, somebody would come down the highway, take me by the hand.
That is what the Methodist Women in Troy, New York, did for her.
They sponsored her on a four year scholarship to Bennett College in Greensboro,
North Carolina,, where she graduated in 1941. She enrolled in Meharry
Medical College in 1945, and interned at Harlem Hospital in New York, but
was unsuccessful in her request for a surgical residency. She returned
to Meharry and was later admitted into the surgical residency program,
where she worked under the direction of Dr. Matthew Walker.
"Before I got through with those five years," recalls Dr. Brown, "some
of the fellows called me 'Mule Brown' because I worked so hard. I
never let anything bother me. I was going to make those five years and
I made it as the first woman trained in general surgery at Meharry's Hubbard
In 1957, she became the Chief of Surgery at Riverside Hospital.
By the 1960s Dr. Dorothy Brown was a well known member of Nashville's
black community. Her influence coincided with some of the efforts
of a few black activists to open the political process through greater
voter participation. The Supreme Court greatly influenced this effort
in a landmark ruling on legislative representation.
In Baker vs Carr (1962) and subsequent rulings, the Supreme Court established
the rule that the principle of "one person, one vote" must prevail at both
the state and national levels. This decision required the reapportionment
of state legislatures so that each representative would serve the same
number of constituents. Previously, some legislators from sparsely
settled rural areas represented only half as many people as their counterparts
from populous urban areas. The state of Tennessee had to reapportion
a number of voting districts. This led to the creation of one large
inner city district where most of the blacks in Nashville lived at the
Dr. Dorothy Brown was approached by Harold Love to
be a candidate for this district. At first she was reluctant, pleading
that "I was too busy ... and don't know enough about politics," she remembers.
Love, nevertheless, was persistent, and wrote to her from a municipal meeting
he was attending, "We need you now, 'D', and when I get back to Nashville,
we will help you run," Dr. Brown quotes Love. He was as good as his
word. He got the necessary signatures on the petition and took them
to the Court House to register Dr. Brown as a candidate. "He came
back and handed the receipt to me," says Brown, "and said, now, all you
have to do is run.
At the time, Dr. Brown was Chief of Surgery at Riverside Hospital.
"What they would do," she recalls, "would allow me to come and start operating
at six o'clock in the morning so that I would be finished and could get
down to the legislature in time."
Dr. Brown felt that she was in the legislature "as a doctor and a black
woman" and wanted to do anything to help her profession, her sex,
and her race while in the position. Her first piece of legislation
was aimed at honoring two women of the state who were responsible for the
beautification of the base of the state capitol. "At the time, the
base of the capitol was up in store fronts and lean-tos," she says.
These women first asked the state to purchase the land, but the state
refused. They used their individual wealth to "purchase the property
parcel by parcel," says Dr. Brown, "all the way around." Using their organization,
they continued to hold the property. Dr. Brown read a lengthy newspaper
article by Louise Davis, which advocated their cause. Soon the state
of Tennessee "came to its senses and purchased the land." The first structure
erected on the land was the State Supreme Court. The only monument
to honor these women for their efforts, says Dr. Brown, "was a little brown
plaque on the cornerstone stating how the land was acquired."
When Dr. Brown reached the legislature she remembered the Davis article
and agreed that these women should receive a greater honor than the one
bestowed. She, therefore, introduced a bill to rename the extension
of Seventh Avenue, which goes up into the State Capitol, the Eakin-Weakly
The bill passed and embolden Brown to introduce legislation requiring
the State of Tennessee to honor black Americans during the month of February
of each year. She justified her bill by noting that "it would give
Tennesseans a chance to understand and to know African Americans.
If you know a group of people," she says, "and know where they come from,
what they have been through, you may not fall in love with them, but you
can never again hate them." The bill passed.
"The next bill," says Brown, "was my Waterloo." She decided to do something
for her profession by
introducing in 1967 a bill "that opened Pandora's box." The bill
ran counter to the abortion statue in Tennessee which made abortions legal
only to save the life of the mother. Brown's bill called for the
addition of rape and incest as real reasons for abortion.
"Well," says Brown, "you would have thought I opened up the gates of
Hell." Jim Cummings, the Speaker of the House, "came over to my desk that
morning and asked, 'Who told you to put that bill in the hopper? "
She replied, "Nobody told me to put it in, but I thought I would do
something for the profession while I was here ."He said, 'If you don't
take that bill out of the hopper, right now, this will be your first and
last tour in the Tennessee State Legislature'."
The threat was effective, but they did her the unusual dignity of allowing
the bill to reach the floor so that she could explain and defend it.
The bill came within two votes of passage. "Now what we are dealing
with on a federal level," says Dr. Brown, "is the same thing ... I thought
at the time that since the state of Tennessee had been last in so many
things, let's let it be first in something. That is what I did, and
that was my last tour" in the Tennessee General Assembly.
"I did have a wonderful time in the legislature." She originally thought
that "going to the legislature as a woman and a black that they would give
me the business. But they didn't. Everyone of those fellows
there helped me in every way they could. I didn't care whether they
were Republicans or Democrats, if I had a problem I just went to them and
asked them to explain it to me, and they did," she concludes.
Dr. James Haney, writer
*As Seen in "Taking Time to Comment"
Column of the Metropolitan Times, Nashville, Tennessee