Tommie R. Whitlow, who gave Black Sacramentans tools to fulfill their promise, dies at 77

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Sacramento resident Tommie R. Whitlow, who sought out and shared information that would strengthen African American families and the Black community, died Nov. 23 after being diagnosed with leukemia and congestive heart failure. She was 77.

Whitlow was perhaps best known as a key organizer of Sacramento’s annual Sweet Potato Festival and as the founder of the Children of Promise conference. A longtime member of the Sacramento Valley Section of the National Council of Negro Women, Whitlow proposed that the organization start the conference more than 20 years ago, said her friend Marie Napper.

“The mission was to focus on the parents and give them resources and information on how to raise our children with promise,” Napper said. “A lot of times people look at that title, and think it’s a children’s program, but the children benefit at the back end. ... If we can have healthy parents doing healthy things for our children, our kids could have promise in their lives, positive promise in their lives.”

Like many people, Napper got to know Whitlow because she had invited her to participate in a function organized by the local Council of Negro Women. Through her church work, reading or watching news reports and attending events, Whitlow collected information on potential resources for the Black community and got to know people she called upon to speak at events or to emcee them, Napper said.

Whitlow would attend local seminars or workshops to learn about a subject — mental health, programs for those who are deaf or blind, domestic violence — and then find a way to share that information through a council event or in other forums, Napper said, because she wanted to ensure people had access to services and research that could benefit them.

Although people 65 and older are often portrayed as technophobes, Whitlow embraced and learned about how to use Facebook, YouTube, her mobile phone and other technology to share information, Napper and other friends of Whitlow said. Years ago, she began emailing out a calendar of the events organized by Black organizations and businesses in the Sacramento region, Napper said, as a way of not only sharing information but also ensuring that multiple events weren’t scheduled for the same date.

Whitlow’s sister, Johnnie Riley, said that, as a child, her elder sibling was a busy bee who got into everything and so it was no surprise that she was so active as an adult. Born a year apart, Whitlow and Riley spent their grade school years in Louisiana but moved to Oakland with their family when Whitlow was in seventh grade. They have one other sister, Theresa Carr.

Riley couldn’t say why their mother had given them names traditionally associated with boys, but she did say the names have caused a bit of confusion over the years. For instance, she said, two military recruiters showed up at their family home in the height of the Vietnam War to ask why 18-year-old Tommie Whitlow hadn’t registered for the draft. The two men went on their way after their grandmother, laughing, explained that Whitlow was a girl.

A graduate of San Francisco State University, Whitlow worked at first in parks and recreation, then in the insurance industry and finally in the San Francisco Office of the Assessor-Recorder. She lived in Sacramento while working in San Francisco.

Because of her illness, Whitlow was unable to organize last year’s Children of Promise conference, Napper said, but she left the hospital just ahead of the October event and mustered her strength to deliver an opening speech for the online event.

In that speech, still up on Facebook Live, Whitlow told her audience that there are sometimes obstacles when you’re trying to achieve a dream and that she had experienced one last year as her health declined just as it was time to pull the conference together. However, she said, other members of the conference committee rallied and pulled off the 21st annual event in her stead.

“That’s the way dreams are sometimes,” she said. “We don’t always go smooth, right along the way. Sometimes, there are hiccups, real hiccups, that say ‘You can’t do this. You can’t go here. You can’t do that.””

That is when you have to look for resources around you, she said, because there are likely people who will urge you not to give up and will help you to achieve your goal.

Whitlow’s family and friends have scheduled a home-going celebration for her at 11 a.m. Dec. 15 at Calvary Christian Center, 2665 Del Paso Blvd. in Sacramento.

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