Lillian Brown’s mothering powers were so strong that she could just look at a child in Newhallville — her own and anyone else’s — and the child would straighten right up. She could cook food so good that you might be convinced to try chitlins.
And so sharp was her political acumen that mayors of New Haven knew that they hadn’t really won the seat until they’d had an audience with her on her front porch.
That was how friends and family remembered the 100-year-old dynamo Tuesday as over 100 of them gathered at Community Baptist Church for a celebration of her life.
Brown passed away on the last day of May, closing the book on a long life that touched a whole city but particularly the Newhallville neighborhood.
Politicos including Mayor Toni Harp, former Mayor John DeStefano, state NAACP chief Scot X. Esdaile, Probate Judge Clifton Graves Jr, former Newhallville/Prospect Hill Alder Brenda Foskey-Hill and her successor Alder Steve Winter all were in attendance to pay homage to the “Godmother of Newhallville.”
Though Brown was the mother of two sons and four daughters of her own, it was clear Tuesday that she played that maternal role in many ways for many people in Newhallville.
Sharon Pollard-Bradford was one of the people who could attest to that, and she did so in her remarks.
Pollard-Bradford said Brown was representative of what motherhood looked like when she was growing up on Division Street. Back then, mothers could quell misbehavior with just a look that said, “Don’t make me call your parents.”
Pollard-Bradford said she spent a lot of time with the Browns as a child, a familiar face at their dinner table. It’s where she had her first taste of chitlins and learned firsthand how much Brown cared about her family and her community.
“She showed up for others—for her family, for her children, and for her community,” Pollard-Bradford said of Brown. She made the children in the neighborhood be responsible, accountable and respectful.
“She was a humble and smart woman who passed this on to her children because they all took their education to another level,” Pollard-Bradford added.
She said that Brown, like her own mother (who also was named Lillian), became active in getting African-Americans involved in the political process in the city and state. Brown served on the Democratic Town Committee for a decade. In 1973, under Mayor Bart Guida’s administration, she was the last elected city treasurer.
Brown also served on several boards and commissions during her long history as a political mover and shaker in the city including the United Newhallville Organization, Newhallville Restoration Corporation, State Women’s Democratic Federation, the Black Elected Officials, the League of Women Voters, New Haven Federation of Democrats and the City of New Haven Housing & Development Board. In addition to wearing all those hats, she was a founder and chairwoman of the Women’s Democratic Caucus. She remained active with Community Baptist Church for 60 years, where she served on the Board of Trustees.
“She was a true mother who brought you to the attention of who you were and what capabilities you had,” Pollard-Bradford said. “She not only did this for her children but she did this for her community.
“Mrs. Brown truly was a mentor to me and made a difference in my life and the lives of many others in the community,” she added.
Carolyn Baker, who grew up in Community Baptist Church with the Brown daughters, said that Lillian Brown always pushed the girls to challenge themselves and praised their efforts.
“We never had to feel that people weren’t behind us because she was there, along with our parents, pushing us,” Baker said. “If we don’t accomplish much, and if we’re shy and not bold, it’s not because our elders didn’t push us because they did. And they wanted us to do our best and she was that person for us as children.
Baker said she moved away from New Haven as an adult but came back when her own mother began to suffer the effects of Parkinson’s. She said Brown recognized her mother’s dignified independent streak in her desire to take the stairs — never the ramp — to go into the church.
“Mrs. Brown was the same way and understood it,” she said. “Any Sunday she was there, she would help my mother in so she could walk up the steps. That was always a comfort to me because I didn’t have aunts. I’m an only child, so it was a comfort to know that she was there and somebody I could count on.”
Mayor Toni Harp remembered Brown as the “longtime undisputed center of gravity here in Newhallville.” She said to know Brown was to know that she had qualities — “a little more charm, a little more grace, a little more substance” — that set her apart from others.
“Lillian Brown was one of those persons with a slightly higher capacity for getting things done,” Harp said. Brown had ” more clout and the ability to leverage that for the good of those around [her] and for the greater good more generally.”
Daughter Lillian Cowan said her mother had suffered a stroke during her 99th year and the family thought that they might lose her then. But Brown made a full recovery, living to see her 100th birthday on Election Day last November for which she said the family felt grateful and blessed.
“God has been good,” Cowan said.