It was only fitting that Lillian O. Brown’s 100th birthday fell on Election Day and that a Kennedy would come to kiss the brow of the Godmother of Newhallville.
Known for her years of activism and commitment to the political well-being of Newhallville, Brown received well wishes at a birthday party held for her Tuesday at Hamden Health Care.
At one point, a booming voice entered the room.
“I hear there’s a party going on tonight,” the voice said. “Am I in the right spot?”
Brown looked around. The voice didn’t seem very familiar, but the face seemed to spark some recognition. It belonged to State Sen. Ted Kennedy Jr. In honor of Brown’s birthday and her dedication to the Democratic Party, Kennedy had made the trip from the shoreline to personally deliver a citation signed by him, Senate President Martin Looney and State Rep. Josh Elliott from the Connecticut General Assembly.
“Now we know that you have been a good Democrat your whole life,” he said. “Now, is that true?”
“I have,” she said.
Youngest daughter Diane, who serves as the beloved branch manager at Stetson Library, said having a political mother meant she didn’t learn about civic responsibility from a book. She learned it from her mother.
“It’s a blessing to have a mother who has had such important impact on the African-American community and society as a whole,” Diane said. “For me to sit and talk through different things with her, she’s been through a lot. She’s seen a lot.”
“Just to know that my mom has left a legacy that has impacted lives,” she added. “It means a lot to me and it’s what helps to drive me every day doing what I do at the library.”
Brown was a mainstay in city politics for decades. She served as city treasurer under former Mayor Bart Guida for two terms and served on the following boards: Newhallville Restoration Corporation, United Newhallville Organization (UNO), League of Women Voters, State Women’s Democratic Federation, City of New Haven Housing and Development under former Mayor Biagio DiLieto, New Haven Federation of Democrats, The Elected Black Officials. She was a co-founder and chairwoman of the Women’s Democratic Caucus.
Brown has received community service awards from the United Newhallville Organization, The New Haven Women’s Democratic Club and Community Baptist Church where she was an active member for more than 60 years and served on the Board of Trustees. On Tuesday, she received citations from the General Assembly, the New Haven Board of Alders and Mayor Toni Harp.
“How are you feeling ma?” asked Diane Tuesday.
“Good,” the centenarian replied as she watched from her bed that had been wheeled into a small reception area.
Friends Thelma Jackson, Lorraine Lopes, and Annie Lougher, women she’d had as neighbors in Newhallville, some of whom now also now live at Hamden Health Care, also were on hand to help Brown celebrate. The women had all raised their children together and are now ranging in age from 85 to 103. They said Brown was a dynamo in their day, as well as a friend.
“I just love her,” Jackson said.
Brown didn’t have a lot to say about turning 100. She appeared to be quietly taking it all in. But she has experienced a lot in 100 years of living.
Born on Nov. 7, 1917, in Clinton, N.C to the late Sallie Birchett Jackson and Willie Birchett she would move with her family to Lawrenceville, Va. at the age of six, according to a biography provided by her family. She attended St. Paul’s Normal and Industrial School, now St. Paul’s College.
At 16, she moved to Petersburg, Va where she lived until the age of 18. She then moved to New Haven, where she worked as a domestic for several years. She married Frank W. Brown in 1940. Out of that union, she had six children: Frank Jr., Thomas, Carol, Lillian, Sally, and Diane. She started working at Winchester Repeating Arms in1945 and retired in 1982 after 37 years of service. Sally became an alderwoman and city/town clerk. Carol was a successful attorney. And Diane is an award-winning librarian.
“She was an outspoken and respected community activist and politician in New Haven,” according to the biography. She served as chairperson for Ward 21 for a decade. And many local politicians, community activists, and leaders reached out to her advice throughout the years. “She became known as ‘The Godmother’ of Newhallville for her commitment and courage to speak out against any injustice that adversely affected her constituents as well as the Black community at large.”
Her great-great niece and namesake, Olivia Kelley, said it was profound to her to grow up with a relative as politically active as Brown.
“She truly was the godmother of the ‘Ville,” she said. “She’s my only great-great aunt still here and that means a lot to me.”
Diane said that her mother’s legacy gives her the strength and courage to speak out when others are fearful.
“I definitely got that from her,” she said.