For the second time in her life, Tawny Brown found herself standing among the rubble of the home of CCBC, or Concerned Citizens for a Better Community in Boonville.
"It was devastating," Brown said. "I was stuck in time. The organization that contributed so much to me and so many other people was not what it used to be. I felt pretty responsible."
Sumner School, the first and only African American school in Boonville, served as the community center for CCBC since 1986 when the organization bought the building from Guy’s Potato Chips. CCBC, a 40-year-old African American social organization, ceased operations in the fall due to a shrinking membership, financial concerns and roof damage.
"It’s a place where I grew up," Brown said. "It was my support system. It helped me counteract the stereotyping and discrimination I experienced as an African American child."
If Brown’s family members were not at their home in east Boonville, they were at the Sumner School cooking, planning or socializing. At her own elementary school, Brown had trouble with some of her teachers because she was so outspoken. Being one of the only black students, Brown felt the community members at CCBC helped her keep her spirits up and taught her how to live in a world where she would be identified as less than.
"My grandfather told me from an early age that because of your race and gender you're going to have people who want to judge you and try to limit you because of that, don't let them," Brown said.
She came back to Boonville in 2012 to help her ailing grandmother but discovered another task. The Sumner School was in a disheveled and unfamiliar state at that time. Brown’s grandfather, Richard Brown, came to mind when looking at the neglected property. She recalls standing next to him as a child in similar dust and debris after CCBC purchased the building from Guy’s Potato Chips.
Guy’s, when they bought the school from the Boonville Board of Education in 1959, threw out all the school’s historical archives, memorabilia, trophies, photos and more. Her grandfather attended the school as a boy and later became a founding member of CCBC and was the city’s first black city council member.
Richard Brown became a meticulous historian of his life and work in the city later in his life. If he was devastated standing next to her seeing his school full of memories gutted and transformed into an industrial kitchen, he did not show it, Tawny Brown said. He and the community quickly built the organization up out of the ashes. Years later, she was determined to do the same.
"I felt a duty to the organization that my grandfather helped start," Brown said. "This was an organization that helped to solidify the importance of doing your best from people who look like me."
Membership had shrunk dramatically since she left Boonville in 1993 to get a master’s degree in sociology from Lincoln University. Many of the original members had died, including her grandfather in 1999. The city also experienced a significant loss in industry, forcing many locals to move to larger cities or commute to find work opportunities.
Within 60 days, she and a few remaining members of the CCBC were able to get the lights and water back on and the insurance reinstated back in 2012. Board members elected her president in 2014.
In her first few months as president, Brown raised $5,000 for the center. Several nights a week she would drive straight from Springfield, where she was working at the time, to Jefferson City to pick up her daughter and finally to Boonville for a CCBC meeting.
She was working at the Missouri Alliance for Children and Families back then as a foster child advocate. Seeing her grandfather give his life to public service encouraged her to commit her life to help the most vulnerable members of society. Brown remembers the words her grandfather lived by, "you can judge the integrity of a community by how it treats its most vulnerable." She modeled her life after this quote.
With funds raised in the first year, Brown implemented the Summer Food Service Program where students who were not in school could come and eat lunch.
Many around town still saw Brown as the little girl she once was despite her leadership position.
"Sometimes it was pretty difficult being the most educated person in the room being a black female," Brown said. "Then not being taken seriously or having your experiences dismissed. I entered a space where people knew me, but not as the Tawny I am now."
She became increasingly active in the community, often going to city council meetings.
As president, Brown threw herself into the organization, giving up much of her time with her family and eventually some of her money in to the organization too.
"It hit home for me when I was putting my own money in keeping [CCBC] running," Brown said. "My grandfather taught me, and I knew this, that that’s not good business. I knew things were going down hill but, as president, I did not want to think about it.’
She realized the magnitude of the shift CCBC took when she discovered, and what remained true for the next five years of her presidency, that the majority of the financial supporters contributing to the CCBC were white. This was not the case during the time of her grandfather. Brown said she was shocked by this change, but was not totally surprised.
After the Sumner School experienced significant roof damage in the fall, Brown made the decision to cease operations for the CCBC. Her goal was to be transparent with the community about the challenges it had faced the last two years leading up to the disbanding.
Brown’s final goal was to ensure the building went to a community member who knew and respected the history of the organization. That person is Chequita Hinkle, the pastor of Freedom in Christ Ministries.
"She is homegrown Boonville," Brown said. "She knows the history quite well. We wanted to make sure that the property would remain black-owned primarily."
Brown has been in conversation with Freedom in Christ to use the Sumner School building and its surrounding properties. Now, she only has a paper left to sign finalizing the agreement between the two organizations. The center will remain an inclusive place for anyone in the community to utilize.
"I have given a lot of myself to other people," Brown said. "It can be really taxing on you physically, mentally, psychologically, and then you leave the people you care about most with the leftovers of yourself, and I don’t want that."
Brown hopes to spend more time with her daughter M’Jai who now attends school in Columbia, while continuing advocacy work. Last Thursday, Brown spoke at a meeting of the American Association of University Women about her experience getting a doctorate degree from Baker University in Kansas City as well as being a black and female leader.
"For black women, you cannot address gender without race," Brown said. "When black women win, everybody wins."
Brown now lives in Columbia and works for the Missouri Public Service Commission as the diversity training recruitment coordinator. She hopes to continue fighting for the most vulnerable in society while encouraging others to do the same.