Dead-of-the-night emergency phone calls were nothing new for the Nashville, Tennessee household of surgeon Dorothy Brown. But her daughter, Lola, remembers one particular woman who showed up at their home, which also housed her mother’s medical office, sometime between two and three in the morning.
“‘Who is it?’ [A shaky woman’s voice asked]: ‘Is Dr. Brown here? I’ve got snakes in my stomach, and I don’t know what to do about them.’” Lola Brown believes she was not much older than 10 when she spoke to the frantic woman. She can date it approximately because such nocturnal visitations of women — distraught, determined, sometimes delusional, often pregnant — increased after 1967. That year, her mother, Tennessee’s first Black woman lawmaker, proposed reforming the state’s abortion ban.
It was a courageous move for Brown, who was hypervisible and vulnerable as the only African American female in the statehouse and part of the first cohort of Black legislators to win statewide office since Reconstruction. She also was one of several Black state legislators, including New York’s Percy Sutton and Wisconsin’s Lloyd Barbee, to push abortion law change before Roe v. Wade in 1973.
It was one of many firsts she racked up during a career. First single adoptive parent in Tennessee (of Lola); first Black woman to complete a surgical residency in the South, which she did at Meharry Medical College; and first Black woman inducted into the American College of Surgeons.
As an infant, Brown was handed over to relatives and then placed in a New York State Methodist orphanage when her mother couldn’t care for her any longer. Her single mother was a day worker, an itinerant domestic who got work when and where she could — not ideal for parenting.
A kind physician who took out Brown’s tonsils made her yearn to be a doctor at age five. Brown remained at the orphanage for most of her youth, running back to it during the short periods her mother reclaimed her. During one of those times, Brown’s mother sent her out to do domestic work…