Early Years and Public Career
Thomas Henry Brown was born in Petersburg on January 4, 1864, the son of Pleasant Brown and Nancy Brown. At birth he was probably a slave, but little is known of his family. Brown lived with a grandmother. Her illness required him to leave school about 1872 to work in afactory. Somehow he acquired an informal education, and his intelligence and determination carried him onward.
About 1882 Brown joined the Knights of King Solomon, a fraternal order based in Danville. He became state deputy of the order in 1885 and traveled to organize new lodges. After one year Brown returned to Petersburg as a clerk in the pharmacy of William S. Fields, one of the first African Americans to operate a drugstore in that city. Brown joined the Petersburg Blues, a local, and used his organizer’s skills in behalf of ‘s bid for the in 1888. Brown’s testimony to a congressional committee investigating charges of election fraud in that campaign helped Langston belatedly win his seat in Congress. Brown remained active in the local and also organized the city’s black lodge of the Improved, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World. He was also a founding member of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Petersburg.
On December 26, 1888, Brown married Ellen Booth Cooper, of Petersburg. They had one daughter. Two years later they moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to operate a drugstore for a physician there. The family soon returned to Petersburg, where Brown worked as a janitor for Thomas Scott, an undertaker, who was also keeper of Providence Cemetery adjacent to the white Blandford Cemetery. Providence was part of the Negro Burying Ground, established on land donated for that purpose after the War of 1812 by white militia officers to honor their slaves who went to war with them. As the cemetery expanded, several associations were formed to manage different sections. In 1893 the city threatened to sell Providence Cemetery to meet delinquent property taxes. To pay the arrears, Brown organized the People’s Memorial Cemetery Association and became its first president. Members labored to clean the property and built a road to it, but in 1894 another association charged them with trespassing. The mayor’s court ruled that the cemetery belonged to Brown’s group.
War with Spain began in 1898, and the Petersburg Blues became part of the 6th Virginia Infantry Regiment. Brown served as the unit’s hospital steward at Camp Corbin. The regiment suffered discrimination and never saw combat. Captain Brown, as he was later called, became a leader of the Virginia United Spanish War Veterans.
Brown continued working for Scott until 1897. Having learned the undertaking business, bringing to it knowledge acquired at the drugstores, Brown opened his own establishment in 1897 and was licensed by the Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers on August 10, 1899.
Brown’s name does not appear in the Petersburg city directories between 1909 and 1914, and he may have worked in Alexandria as an undertaker during that time. He had returned to Petersburg by 1914. About 1916 Brown opened a funeral home in nearby Hopewell and again worked to organize community institutions. In addition to the Hopewell Benevolent Beneficial Association, established in April 1916, he helped found the Sweet Home Baptist Church. During World War I (1914–1918) Brown was a labor agent for the DuPont Company in Hopewell. In March 1928 he founded the Race Advancement Association. Its short-lived newspaper, the Virginia Race Advocate, called on black citizens to pay theirand vote as a unit. Later that year, on October 24, 1928, the Colored Funeral Directors and Licensed Embalmers Association of Virginia held its organizational meeting at one of Brown’s funeral homes, and he served the association for many years as secretary. In 1929 he arranged for Petersburg’s new city manager to address a mass meeting of African Americans. A smoker in Brown’s honor took place afterward, and, typically, he proposed the creation of a civic association, declaring again that only through unity could African Americans exert any influence on the city’s affairs.
Brown continued to devote his considerable energies to the cemetery. As its keeper since 1921, he dreamed of making it a proper place for burials, with gravesites identified and avenues named in honor of community leaders buried there, but contributions proved sufficient only to control the growth of weeds and brush. The city government ignored his pleas for assistance, but for years Brown organized cleanup days and implored the community to respect the dead through care of the cemetery. By 1943 some 8,900 people were buried in the cemetery that came to be known as People’s Memorial Cemetery.
Brown’s wife died on November 19, 1939. He married Daisy Valentine on December 1, 1942, and one month later, on January 4, 1943, the community gathered to celebrate the wedding and Brown’s seventy-ninth birthday. He continued to champion the cemetery and ran for city council in 1950, sixty-two years after he had campaigned for John Mercer Langston. One of two African Americans in the race, Brown at age eighty-six was said to be the oldest person ever to seek elective office in Petersburg, but he finished last.
Brown died of pneumonia in McGuire Veterans Hospital in Richmond on February 8, 1952, and was buried at People’s Memorial Cemetery in Petersburg. His grandson James Wilbert Brown Burke accepted responsibility for the cemetery, but after his death in 1966 it fell into decay again. Finally, in 1986, the city took possession and began clearing the brush and vines that covered the cemetery. On May 28, 1990, nearly a century after Brown took responsibility for it, People’s Memorial Cemetery formally opened as a city-owned historic site.