Cora Mae Brown was part of a generation of African American women who translated their community work into political struggle during the first half of the twentieth century. Born on April 19, 1914 in Bessemer, Alabama, Brown’s family migrated to Detroit, Michigan when she was eight years old. There she was nurtured by a lively community of female activists who encouraged her to attend Fisk University after her graduation from Cass Technical High School. At Fisk she studied with the renowned sociologist, E. Franklin Frazier, and graduated with a degree in sociology.
Upon her return to Detroit Brown obtained one of the few white-collar jobs available to black women in Detroit’s public sector, as a social worker in the Women’s Division of the Police Department. Working closely with the community during the Great Depression and into the war years, Brown aided and encouraged young African American women during a tumultuous time. In the early 1940s Brown began attending Wayne State University Law School. Upon her graduation in 1948 Brown began to explore the possibility of running for public office. The 1940s had seen an increasingly powerful political coalition between organized labor and civil rights advocates in Detroit. Brown hoped to take advantage of this alliance.
Brown’s first two runs for office, the Michigan Senate in 1950 and 1951, were unsuccessful. In 1952, however, she became the first African American women to serve in the Michigan State Senate where she supported legislation for fair housing and equal employment. Brown served two terms in the Senate as a pioneer in civil rights. She then attempted to reach the halls of Congress by running for the House of Representatives in 1956. After losing her race, Brown was appointed as the special associate general counsel of the U.S. Post Office in 1957, where she served the remainder of her working life.
Cora Mae Brown died in Detroit, Michigan on December 17, 1972 at the age of 58.