By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

In hosting an annual Sweet Potato Festival and wrangling pie judges and vendors en route to raising money for programs for the community, Tommie R. Whitlow honored the legacy of an African American icon while quietly building one of her own.

Whitlow, a Sacramento “pillar,” passed away on November 23 after battling leukemia. She was 77 years old.

Whitlow was born in Bastrop, Louisiana on March 31, 1944. She later called places like Oakland, Walnut Creek and Pasadena home. Whitlow was a graduate of the University of California San Francisco and San Jose State University. During her professional career, she held leadership roles with companies such as Allstate Commercial Insurance and Cigna Health Insurance. She retired as a deputy assessor recorder for the City and County of San Francisco.

Locally, Whitlow served as past president of the Sacramento Valley Section of the National Council of Negro Women, spearheading events such as the Christian Women of the Year Awards and the Sweet Potato Festival. The festival paid homage to NCNW founder Mary McLeod Bethune’s effort to raise money for a school for young Black women by selling sweet potato pies. 

Through the annual Christian Women of the Year honors, Whitlow worked to acknowledge women who give tirelessly of themselves in support of others through their churches and ministries.  Whitlow herself was dedicated to her own church, Calvary Christian Center.  She was active in the Children’s Church there, leading a Missionettes group for girls and helping youth publish two books, “Fruits of the Spirit” and “We Have On Our Armor.”  

“She poured into the children something that is still being echoed for generations,” said Calvary’s senior pastor Dr. Phillip Goudeaux.

“She made our children feel that they were placed on this earth to make a difference through the yearly calendars with their pictures on them, raising up scholars, raising up authors of books at a very young age,” shared first lady Dr. Brenda Goudeaux.

“Her love for the word of God kept her engaged in the teachings of faith as she plowed through her challenges and peaks in life,” Dr. Phillip Goudeaux said.

“She commuted out of town many years on her job, but still was faithful to midweek Bible studies as well as Sunday morning and evening services when she wasn’t serving in the children’s ministry,” Dr. Goudeaux continued.

A faithful member since 1986, she  also volunteered at the church’s thrift store, Lil Macy’z on Del Paso Boulevard.

Whitlow had a demonstrated commitment to young people’s education and overall wellbeing. She was a vocal supporter of  the Vision 2000 College Prep Math and Reading Academy, founded by pioneering Black school administrator Dr. Hazel Mahone. 

Local principal Tara Lampkins was among those posting tributes about Whitlow on social media.

“Each summer I encouraged all of my scholars to attend Vision 2000 at CSUS. Many kinder parents said, ‘my child is too young.’ I pushed because the kinder teacher was Ms. Tommie R. Whitlow,” Lampkins wrote. “My kinders returned to school as first graders bragging about their summer at college. Thank you for pouring into them and all of us through your warm smile and example of serving others.”

Former Sacramento NAACP president David B. De Luz called Whitlow a “friend, mentor, big sister and role model.”

NCNW member Michelle Neal attests to all of those titles.

“I met Tommie in 1997 at New Hope Baptist Church and was encouraged to join the (NCNW),” Neal shared.  “What a lifelong positive journey of planning, spearheading, assisting, fellowshipping, walking, organizing signature events — the annual Christian Women of the Year Luncheon, annual Sweet Potato Festival; annual Children of Promise Conference, and the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk.

“God has certainly smiled on me to have spent 24 years under the direction of a powerful, insightful and beautiful, caring queen,” Neal added.

City Councilmember and Hmong community advocate Mai Vang called Whitlow a “legend” who “inspired an entire generation to keep fighting” for their community. 

“I first met Ms. Whitlow as a young HIP organizer in South Sac during the school closures back in 2013,” Vang wrote on Facebook.

“Ms. Whitlow was a kind, patient, loving, beautiful human,” Vang added. “She made every opportunity to teach and build with our young folks and always stood up for us. From her annual Sweet Potato Festival at Pannell Community center to her fierce advocacy for our youth , she never missed a beat at community meetings, town halls and gatherings fighting to ensure South Sac families received nothing but the best.”

Over the years, Whitlow has been recognized for her volunteer work by the Black United Fund of Sacramento, Vision 2000 College Prep Math and Reading Academy, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., Calvary Christian Center, and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. In May, she was presented with a Black History Maker’s From Home Award at the Sacramento Black Expo. 

In addition to serving as past president of the NCNW Sacramento Valley Section, Whitlow served four years on the NCNW Executive Board of Directors, acted as the NCNW NorCal Region correspondence secretary, and financial secretary and chair of the local chapter’s Children of Promise Program.

Pioneering corrections leader Odette Crawford has been a repeat speaker at the Children of Promise Workshop. Crawford marvelled at Whitlow’s dedication to the event, noting that Whitlow still planned last October’s virtual session while ill. Crawford was a 2019 recipient of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors’ “Heroes of Human Services” awards. She applied at Whitlow’s urging.

“Tommie insisted that I apply for this award based upon my volunteer work in Sacramento since my retirement in 2006. She reviewed my document and said ‘It’s well written, but you need to include these things, etc.’ Long story short, she was correct … I was very humbled and grateful to the good Lord and Tommie for pushing me to do this.”

Warren Murphy met Whitlow in 1967. She was a recreation leader at a teen center in the East Palo Alto area. Whitlow was 21 or 22 years old, Murphy recalls, and he was 16 and on his way to prison.

“She was a breath of fresh air,” he shared. “She was very good, she had to be. We were the worst teenagers in history, but we never disrespected Tommie.”

Murphy went away and didn’t see Whitlow again until 2016, while working to help other ex-felons as a transition specialist.

“I was in charge of a prison-to-work program for SETA. It was fantastic to see her and she was surprised to see me in that capacity, but very happy to see how I turned out,” shared Murphy, who retired in June.  “I changed, but she was still helping people and changing lives. Her kind you won’t see again.”

A memorial service for Whitlow is scheduled to be held at Calvary Christian Center at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, December 15. The church is located at 2667 Del Paso Boulevard.