Segregation’s lessons helped shape Gilmore’s political career

Friday, February 19, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 8
By Sam Stockard


State Rep. Brenda Gilmore’s passion for issues related to women, children and families – reaching out to those on society’s fringes – may well stem from her experience during desegregation.

Gilmore, 63, recalls the decision she and another classmate made to transfer to all-white Gallatin High School in the late 1960s rather than attend Union, the city’s high school for black students in that period.

“We knew integration was going to hit when schools came together and segregation ended,” Gilmore says.

A group of eight planned to go to Gallatin High to “get acclimated to the culture over there and let them get used to us,” she says. “And everybody chickened out but two of us, and so we went on. Overall, it was a pretty positive experience. There were a lot of negative things that happened.”

By her senior year, she had matured and the other students had gotten accustomed to going to school with her. But she had her share of “sad times” at Gallatin High, including making the academic adjustment. She’d made As and Bs at Union but started failing classes at Gallatin.

She believes it was because Union’s books and other materials were outdated and “ragged,” making the switch difficult.

“But there was this little Church of Christ teacher, Mrs. Crowder, who just kind of took me under her arm, stayed after class and tutored me, and by the time I graduated I got my grades back up and won a scholarship to Vol State Community College,” says Gilmore, who graduated in 1971.

“So I think even when there are negative experiences with our two races there’s always a ram in the bush, always somebody to break that stereotype, where you can’t say all black people are bad or all white people are bad. She was just an angel in disguise. I’ll always cherish her.”

Back on track

She stopped going to school for about a decade after marring Harry Gilmore, her husband of 43 years, but earned a bachelor’s degree at Tennessee State University, then a master’s at Vanderbilt, where she worked until retiring in 2006.

In the meantime, she won a seat on the Metro Council, serving there from 1999 to 2007, then captured the state House District 54 seat in 2006, now representing part of Davidson County from Bordeaux to Parkwood, Goodlettsville and Madison. Her daughter, Erica Gilmore, recently won election to the Metro Council as a council member at large.

“When I first came here 10 years ago, my interest was the environment, and it still is. From the time I was a little girl, I’ve always had an environmental interest,” she says.

“What I found though, those people who’ve been marginalized, probably because of who I am, because I’m a black female, a woman, people appeal to me when they need help. And I have felt drawn to do what I could to help them.”

Her philosophy is reflected in legislation largely designed to give people a second chance. Bills she is sponsoring this year would:

– Prohibit state employers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history on an initial application form.

– Reconstitute the Tennessee Sentencing Commission.

Gilmore has held a “felony-friendly” job fair several years ago with agencies providing support services for people who’ve served time in prison. About 3,000 people turned out.

“So that sent a message to me that these people desperately want to work,” she says. But too often, when the employer finds out they have a criminal history, their opportunity ends. The bill simply delays the time when a state agency could conduct the background check.

As chairman of the Legislature’s Black Caucus, Gilmore carries several sentencing reform bills, and after expert testimony from numerous groups last summer, she believes the Sentencing Commission should be revived to create more equity and fairness.

– Require juveniles to undergo a mental health screening after being found delinquent twice for offenses considered misdemeanors for adults.

– Make minors sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder eligible for parole after serving 65 percent of a 60-year sentence.

– Make defendants convicted of having or selling drugs in school zones eligible for parole after serving 33 percent of their sentence.

– Specify that violations of drug-free school zones occurring when schools are out for at least five straight days are not subject to enhanced and mandatory sentences.

– Require law enforcement agencies to adopt written policies for the use of body cameras by officers.

In backing those changes, Gilmore cities statistics such as 500 people imprisoned statewide because of drug offenses in school zones, a law mainly affecting inner-city residents or those who live in small towns.

She points toward one case in which a mother says her son is serving 16 years in prison, at 100 percent, for having four ecstasy pills and 15 Loritabs.

State Rep. Brenda Gilmore

House District 54, Nashville

Age: 63

Family: Husband, Harry Gilmore, daughter, Metro Council member Erica Gilmore

Education: Gallatin High School; bachelor’s degree from Tennessee State University; master’s from Vanderbilt University

Career: Retired from Vanderbilt University

Politics: Metro Council 1999-2007; elected to House of Representatives, 2006

Committees: House Finance, Ways and Means, House Business and Utilities, Joint Fiscal Review

Religion: Gilmore is a member of Mt. Zion Baptist Church

In another case, she describes a man on probation for a school-zone drug offense. In his fourth year of probation, police searched his home and found four bullets, but no gun, and some drugs in a car, which was parked in the garage.

As a result, he’s being sent back to jail for 18 years.

Durham debacle

Republican Rep. Jeremy Durham returned to the Legislature recently after a two-week hiatus to put his life in order following reports of sexual harassment of women working in the Legislature. He stepped down as whip of the Republican Caucus, then left the caucus, but only after extensive news reporting.

Gilmore says House Republican leaders “could have been more proactive” and “moved more swiftly,” since they knew of Durham’s reported late-night texting and inappropriate actions for months.

“As a woman, I’m offended that they did not move more quickly to make these women feel more comfortable,” Gilmore says.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, who asked the attorney general to investigate Durham’s actions and formed a committee to look into the matter, may be bringing the matter under control, Gilmore says she believes.

But she notes, “The words I hear on the street are people are just committee fatigued. There’ve just been so many committees established that it may create just a little bit of suspicion that the right thing will ever be done.

“I do think she’s headed in the right direction, but because it’s taken so long and so many committees have been established I think there’s going to be a great void in creating a trust level with the community.”

Gilmore contends the Republican Caucus, with a supermajority, holds the responsibility “to go beyond what is expected.”

Willing to speak out

As a House leader, Gilmore isn’t afraid to give her views on hot issues. For instance, the NAACP recently had its day on Capitol Hill where it resumed the push for passage of Insure Tennessee, a proposal by Gov. Haslam to use Affordable Care Act funds to catch some 280,000 working Tennesseans in a coverage gap.

Gilmore says, however, the matter is probably on hold because 2016 is an election year and with the General Assembly likely to get out in early April, legislators won’t have the time to deal with such a big issue.

“I don’t think the Legislature has the will to try to push it. But I do think it’s a sad commentary when we’re willing to accept federal funds for our highways and willing to accept federal funds for schools and that about 44 and 48 percent of our state is made up of federal funds, but we don’t think that it’s important enough to accept federal funds to keep people alive and make sure that they are able to pay for their insurance so they can get good care,” she explains.

Gilmore also calls it “hypocritical” for Williamson County legislators to push bills undermining amendments backed by Davidson County voters dealing with affordable housing and local jobs for Metro-funded construction projects.

In particular, she points to Rep. Glen Casada, who accuses the federal government of “meddling” in the state’s business but doesn’t mind the Legislature trying to control Nashville’s voter decisions.

Casada responds to Gilmore’s criticism by saying, “I would submit she doesn’t understand the role of state government. … State government created the federal government and created local government.”

Mandating construction jobs and affordable housing for Davidson County residents would drive up prices and do the opposite of what Nashville voters want, Casada contends.

House Republican Majority Leader Gerald McCormick also disagrees with Gilmore on a number of issues but believes she does “a great job.”

“She advocates for her community, her district, and if that’s at odds with mine, she’ll fight the good fight for her folks. But she can do it in a collegial way. I’m just impressed with her,” McCormick adds.

House Democratic Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh calls Gilmore intelligent, articulate and experienced in municipal government, which benefits her at the legislative level.

“She’s very well-read. She studies the bills. She knows what she’s doing. She’s really an effective representative for Davidson County,” Fitzhugh points out.

And with Davidson and Shelby counties making up the lion’s share of the Democratic Caucus’s 26 members, he says, Gilmore plays a crucial role in the Legislature.

Gilmore’s view, in part, of the two parties can be summed up when she responds to questions about the actions of former Davidson County Election Commission Chairman Ron Buchanan.

He quit the post recently amid reports of credit-card spending and called a Nashville TV reporter a name. Legislative delegations are responsible for nominating Election Commission members, and their numbers are based on which party controls the Legislature.

“I would say there are things I admire about the Democratic Party and things I admire about the Republican Party. Probably the one glaring weakness of the Republican Party is the lack of diversity,” Gilmore says.

“And when you don’t have women in key positions and minorities and African Americans, I think basically … everybody looks just alike, everybody thinks just alike, everybody’s from the same culture that you have these kinds of occurrences.”

In the state Legislature, Gilmore could be that “ram in the bush.”

Sam Stockard can be reached at