Brownsville developed in association with cotton plantations and commodity agriculture in the Mid-South. It is located near the Hatchie River, a tributary of the Mississippi River, which originally served as the main transportation routes to markets for cotton. The town is notable for its many well-preserved antebellum homes owned by wealthy planters before the Civil War, and multi-generational family-owned farms.
The Tabernacle Campground was founded in 1826 by the Rev. Howell Taylor, soon after Brownsville was founded. In the 21st century, it serves as the site of an annual "camp-meeting" for descendants of Taylor.
Brownsville's synagogue, Temple Adas Israel, was built in 1882 by German Jewish immigrants, who founded the congregation in the 1860s. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The building is believed to be the oldest synagogue in Tennessee, and is a rare example of a synagogue built in the Gothic Revival style.
Through the late 19th century, whites worked to re-establish supremacy after Reconstruction and impose Jim Crow and second-class status on African Americans. Tennessee effectively disenfranchised most blacks in the state after the turn of the 20th century, excluding them from the political system. The state's congressional delegation and elected officials became predominately Democratic, except for Republicans elected by white residents in East Tennessee.
Haywood County still had a significant black majority in the late 1930s, but they had no way to exercise political power. In 1939 a number of blacks in Brownsville founded a local NAACP chapter and worked to assert their right to register and vote in the presidential election that year. In June 1940 threats were made against the group, and Elisha Davis was kidnapped by a large white mob. They demanded the names of NAACP members and their plans. He fled the town, followed by his family, losing his successful service station and all their property.
On June 20, 1940, Elbert Williams, secretary of the NAACP chapter, and Elisha's brother Thomas Davis were both questioned by police. Thomas was released, but Williams was never seen alive again. His body was found in the Hatchie River a few days later, with bullet holes in his chest. He is considered to be the first NAACP member to have been lynched for civil rights activities. Several other members were run out of town, fearing for their lives. The NAACP conducted an investigation and appealed to the Department of Justice to prosecute Williams' murder, providing affidavits of witnesses. FBI agents were sent to the town in September to protect blacks wanting to register to vote, but they were fearful because there had been no prosecution of Williams' killers. NAACP sources said that no blacks registered to vote, as it reported in its magazine The Crisis in October 1940. Davis and his family resettled in Niles, Michigan.
In 2015 the Tennessee Historical Commission approved an official historical marker honoring Elbert Williams. It was dedicated in Brownsville on June 20, 2015, at a memorial service marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of Williams’ death. The featured speaker was NAACP President Cornell W. Brooks.
According to the United States Census Bureau, Brownsville has a total area of 9.1 square miles (24 km2), all land.
Brownsville is situated on the southeastern edge of the New Madrid Seismic Zone, an area with a high earthquake risk.
The Hatchie River runs through Brownsville. It is the longest free-flowing tributary of the lower Mississippi, and contains the largest forested floodplain in Tennessee. The river is home to hundreds of species of fish, including 11 species of catfish, and the alligator snapping turtle. The Hatchie River was named by the Nature Conservancy as one of the "great places" to save. The Hatchie is also designated as a "scenic river" under the Tennessee Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.
As of the census of 2000, there were 10,748 people, 4,105 households, and 2,865 families residing in the city. The population density was 1,178.1 people per square mile (455.0/km²). There were 4,372 housing units at an average density of 479.2 per square mile (185.1/km²). The racial makeup of the city was 36.52% White, 60.72% African American, 0.14% Native American, 0.10% Asian, 0.07% Pacific Islander, 1.83% from other races, and 0.61% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 3.61% of the population.
There were 4,105 households out of which 35.4% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 38.8% were married couples living together, 27.3% had a female householder with no husband present, and 30.2% were non-families. 27.0% of all households were made up of individuals and 11.8% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.58 and the average family size was 3.11.
In the city, the population was spread out with 29.5% under the age of 18, 10.4% from 18 to 24, 27.1% from 25 to 44, 19.4% from 45 to 64, and 13.6% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 33 years. For every 100 females there were 80.2 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 73.3 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $27,276, and the median income for a family was $33,782. Males had a median income of $30,313 versus $22,030 for females. The per capita income for the city was $15,217. About 18.0% of families and 21.3% of the population were below the poverty line, including 26.3% of those under age 18 and 27.0% of those age 65 or over.
Blues singer and guitarist Sleepy John Estes was born in Ripley (Nutbush) and later moved to Brownsville in 1915.
Yank Rachell, blues artist and mandolin player, was born in Brownsville in the early 1900s. He recorded, toured Europe, Japan and shortly before his death in 1997 returned to Brownsville to perform Jug Band recordings with John Sebastian and the J-Band.
In the song "Delta Dawn" (recorded by Tanya Tucker and others), the lyric "All the folks around Brownsville say she's crazy," is a reference to Brownsville, Tennessee. Credit for the writing of the song is given to songwriter Alex Harvey and former child rockabilly star Larry Collins.
According to a 1990s interview with Zelma Bullock, mother of singer Tina Turner, her daughter was born Anna Mae Bullock in a sharecroppers' cabin in Nutbush on November 26, 1939. Her father was a farm overseer, and Anna Mae lived as a child in the Knoxville area, Nutbush, Ripley and Brownsville.
"The Mindfield" is the life’s work of Brownsville artist Billy Tripp. He began the structure in 1989 and will continue to add to it until his death. He has requested to be interred in it. Included in the network of steel are individual pieces representing various events and periods of Tripp's life, especially the death of his father, Rev. Charles Tripp, in 2002. The artist recently added a water tower salvaged from a defunct factory in Western Kentucky, which he dismantled, transported to Brownsville, and reconstructed single-handedly. It is a memorial to Tripp’s parents and expresses his belief in tolerance in our communities and governmental systems.
Tripp’s book, The Mindfield Years, explores his life through the voices of three main characters and their efforts to find meaning, purpose, and contentment to their lives. Written in stream-of-consciousness style, the novel contains elements of short story, poetry, philosophy, and psychology. Tripp is working on volume two of this series, his Goodbye, and volume three, which is yet to be titled.Son Bonds, musician
Paul Burlison, rockabilly pioneer, guitarist, member of The Rock and Roll Trio
Tony Delk of the Boston Celtics graduated from Haywood High School
Joseph Folk (1869–1923), Circuit Attorney of the City of St. Louis, later 31st Governor of Missouri
Alfred Alexander Freeman (1838–1926), politician and judge, candidate for governor in 1872
Richard Halliburton, adventurer and author
Brett Scallions, leader of the band Fuel
Jim Thaxton, football player
Billy Tripp, author, artist
Jarvis Varnado (born 1988), basketball player for Hapoel Jerusalem B.C.
Elbert Williams (1908-1940), civil rights activist and the first known NAACP member to be lynched for civil rights activities. He was martyred on June 20, 1940 for his efforts to register to vote. After being taken by police for questioning, he was released and never seen alive again. His body was found in the river.The US Department of Justice began an investigation but closed it without prosecution.
The climate in this area is characterized by hot, humid summers and generally mild to cool winters. According to the Köppen Climate Classification system, Brownsville has a humid subtropical climate, abbreviated "Cfa" on climate maps.