Christine Jackson Brownlee (1955–)
Christine Brownlee was mayor of Gilmore (Crittenden County) in 1987–1990 and again in 1997–2002, as well as a state representative in the Seventy-Eighth and Seventy-Ninth Arkansas General Assemblies, serving in 1991–1994 and representing several cities and towns in Mississippi County and a small portion of Crittenden County. She was the first African–American woman to serve as a Republican in the Arkansas General Assembly.
Christine Jackson was born in Jonesboro (Craighead County) on October 16, 1955, to Fannie Murray Wall Jackson, who was a homemaker, and Tom Edward Jackson, a farmer. She was the youngest of ten children. She began her education at the segregated George Washington Carver public school in Marked Tree (Poinsett County). When she was in the third grade, the family moved to Gilmore, near where her father bought a 120-acre farm, and she attended the segregated William R. Golden School in Turrell (Crittenden County). She was salutatorian of her sixth–grade class, a cheerleader, and active in her church. Her mother died in 1968.
She married Billy Earl Brownlee two months before she graduated from the integrated Turrell High School in 1973. While raising three children, Brownlee was employed as assistant manager at the Liquor Center in West Memphis (Crittenden County). In 1986, she ran for mayor of Gilmore, receiving fifty-seven percent of the vote and defeating Tommy Trammel (the incumbent) and Donald McClelland to become the first Black mayor of Gilmore. She was mayor from 1987 to 1990 and was elected secretary of the Arkansas Black Mayors Association.
Brownlee was among Black Arkansans who signed a full-page ad in the Arkansas Gazette supporting the Democratic ticket of Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen in 1988. Governor Bill Clinton appointed Mayor Brownlee to an advisory committee of the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission in 1989, the same year that she was approached by people outside of her community asking her to run for the Arkansas House of Representatives.
In 1990, Brownlee surprised people when she ran for the legislative seat as a Republican, as it “was unheard of for a black to be a Republican,” she said. Brownlee was unopposed in the Republican primary. In the general election, she trailed Blytheville (Mississippi County) alderman Lonnie Middlebrook, the Democrat, by thirty-six votes, but after demanding a recount, she won by five votes. Middlebrook then challenged twelve absentee ballots that he contended were fraudulent, but the Crittenden County Election Commission declined to act. Brownlee was seated by the House of Representatives by an 88–9 vote after a hearing and recommendation from a House subcommittee.
After being sworn in, Brownlee was appointed to the Aging and Legislative Affairs Committee and the Judiciary Committee. She was a member of the legislature’s Republican Caucus, Black Caucus, Women’s Caucus, and Crittenden County Caucus. She said, “I came along at a time when it was a male-dominated area and not just for me being a black Republican female, but for women period, and we were supposed to sit back and be quiet. I was learning and listening to different ones and listening to how they talked and sizing them up and seeing, I don’t know, just kind of studying them and listening to what they were saying, not ask[ing] questions.”
Brownlee sponsored HB 2087 to require doctors to provide women with state-approved information and alternatives to abortion twenty-four hours prior to the procedure, which passed the House and failed with a do-not-pass motion in the Senate’s Public Health, Welfare, and Labor Committee. Twice, she voted against an amendment to the state Health Department budget that would have prohibited condom distribution by school clinics, arguing that anti-abortion legislation would be unnecessary if school clinics could provide condoms to prevent unwanted teen pregnancies. She worked with another legislator to get a community healthcare center in Mississippi County, which did not pass. She also joined as a plaintiff in Turner v. Arkansas, an unsuccessful federal lawsuit supported by the state Republican Party challenging Act 1220 of 1991 on Congressional redistricting. The National Republican Legislators Association named her the 1991 Outstanding Freshman Legislator of the Year.
In running for her second term in the House of Representatives in 1992, Brownlee briefly considered changing parties, but she remained a Republican. “I didn’t see a problem, because I felt like I had campaigned that we needed representation as a black race on both sides.” She was unopposed in the Republican primary and again defeated Lonnie Middlebrook in the general election, 2,990–2,692.
In running for a third term in 1994, Brownlee was unopposed in the Republican primary but lost by fifty votes to Democrat Joe Harris Jr. of Osceola (Mississippi County) in the general election. After her legislative service, Brownlee filed as a candidate for constitutional convention delegate in 1995 but was disqualified because she did not collect the required 200 valid signatures from registered voters in the district. She began taking courses at Mid-South Community College (now Arkansas State University Mid-South) during the 1996 school year and then left college to work as a legislative liaison for Governor Mike Huckabee during the 1997 legislative session.
Gilmore mayor Paul McClelland resigned in 1997 following a state police report that the town was a speed trap, collecting 106 percent of its budget through quotas for traffic tickets, and Brownlee was recruited and elected by the city council in March 1997 to complete the remainder of McClelland’s term. In 1998, she ran unopposed for a four-year term and served as mayor until 2002, when she was defeated for reelection, receiving forty-three percent of the vote against Bob Medley.
Brownlee was then a part-time substitute teacher at the Turrell School District and worked to secure grants from the U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development for a home rehabilitation program in Gilmore. In 2018, she ran unsuccessfully for mayor against incumbent Bruce Delaney, receiving only twenty-four percent of the votes.
For additional information:
Christine Brownlee interview with Lindsley Armstrong Smith, March 5, 2006. “Women in the Arkansas General Assembly.” University of Arkansas Women’s Giving Circle and Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics & Society project. David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
Decker, Caroline. “Rare Do-Not-Pass Kills Abortion Bill.” Arkansas Gazette, March 21, 1991, pp. 1A, 8A.
Kern, David F. “Brownlee Opposes Condom Ban.” Arkansas Democrat, March 27, 1991, pp. 1, 8.
Lindsley Armstrong Smith and Stephen A. Smith
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
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