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When little Irma Hunter was born in Tampa, Florida in 1939, the “Segregation Era” was coming to an end. Her birth year saw the founding of the NAACP, and the decade to come would usher in additional steps forward such as the establishment by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the Fair Employment Practices Committee, the formation of the National Negro Opera Company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and initial efforts to desegregate the U.S. military branches. This progress would eventually lead to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s.
Even with these hopeful signs of changes to come, it was unlikely that her family would have predicted that their baby girl would go on to become Rep. Irma Hunter Brown, the first Black woman elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives, and then follow that up with the title of Senator when she became the first Black woman elected to the Arkansas Senate.
Sen. Brown at the Arkansas Black Hall Fame event in February 2020. With her are Bobby Prescott (left) and her husband, Dr. Roosevelt Brown. Photo courtesy of Soirée Magazine.
After attending North Little Rock’s Shorter College, Sen. Brown graduated magma cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in education and history from the former Arkansas AM & N University (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). She then went on to complete graduate work at the University of Memphis and the Teachers College in Washington, D.C. (now the Federal State University).
Sen. Brown was a teacher in Memphis and Washington, D.C. public schools, and later served as the director of nutrition education in Little Rock. She was forty years old when she began her distinguished career in Arkansas politics in 1980. After serving nine terms in the Arkansas House of Representatives, Sen. Brown spent three years as president of Shorter College. But the pull of public service was too strong, so in 2003 Sen. Brown was sworn in as a member of the Arkansas Senate where she served for six years and was chair of the Senate Committee on City, County and Local Affairs.
Sen. Brown’s 24 years in the legislature was focused on causes and legislation that impacted her local community in Little Rock’s district 33, as well as the city and state at large. As an educator, she was committed to “being the change”, as most who serve any time in a classroom are.
One example of that mindset was her role as co-sponsor of a law that made the Arkansas legislature the first in the country to pass a law addressing environmental equity and justice. The Environmental Equity Act (HB1986) prevents the concentration of solid waste disposal facilities in low-income and primarily minority communities.
She was also co-sponsor, along with Senator Tracy Steele, of legislation that appropriated funds through the Arkansas General Assembly to help establish a monument dedicated to the nine students who desegregated Central High School in Little Rock. Testament is a series of bronze sculptures depicting the students dubbed “The Little Rock Nine” located on the State Capitol grounds and featured on the Civil Rights Trail.
During her career, Sen. Brown received many honors and accolades from a variety of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union Humanitarian of the Year Award, an Honorary Doctorate from Shorter Junior College, designation as a Fellow at the Institute of Politics at Hendrix College in Conway and being named a recipient of the Distinguished Citizen Award from Philander Smith College. She was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2019.
In her post-political years, Sen. Irma Hunter Brown is serving as president of the Friends of Haven of Rest Cemetery, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the condition and appearances of the largest African American cemetery in the state of Arkansas. The cemetery is located on 12th street, near the University Park neighborhood in Little Rock. It is the final resting place of several well-known Black Arkansans including civil rights pioneer, Daisy Bates, and Dr. Joseph A. Booker, the first president of Arkansas Baptist College.
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