The Watson-Brown Foundation, named for Thomas E. Watson and John Judson Brown, was established in 1970 by Walter J. Brown. Its mission is “to improve education in the American South by funding its schools and students, preserving its history, encouraging responsible scholarship, and promoting the memory and values of our spiritual founders.” The Foundation annually awards more than $2.4 million in merit and need-based college scholarships to students from a sixteen-county region of Georgia and South Carolina.
The Foundation is based in Thomson, Georgia, hometown of Thomas E. Watson. He was born September 5, 1856, two miles outside Thomson. After attending Mercer University and then reading law, Watson was admitted to the bar and returned to Thomson in 1877 to begin a successful law practice. He served in the Georgia House of Representatives in 1882, the U.S. House of Representatives from 1890-1892, and the U.S. Senate from 1920 until his death in 1922.
Watson emerged as the leader of the southern Populists soon after his election to Congress. He was nominated in 1896 for vice president on the Populist Party ticket with William Jennings Bryan. He ran for President on the same ticket in 1904 and 1908.
He is remembered for being a voice for Populism and the disenfranchised, and later in life, as a southern demagogue, a strident voice for white supremacy and anti-Catholic rhetoric. His heated rhetoric in his weekly newspaper, The Jeffersonian and monthly Watson’s Magazine played a crucial role in the controversy surrounding Leo Frank’s trial, sentence commutation, and subsequent lynching in 1915. He died on September 26, 1922, age 66, and is buried in the Thomson City Cemetery.
John Judson “J.J.” Brown was born in Hart County, Georgia, in 1865. He served as Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture from 1917-1927 and also founded the Georgia Farm Market Bulletin. J.J. Brown was a friend and political ally of Thomas E. Watson and served as vice president of Watson’s Jeffersonian Publishing Company.
Walter J. Brown, the youngest of J. J. Brown’s four sons, was born in Bowman, Georgia in 1903. He was educated at Georgia Tech and the Henry W. Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia. Walter Brown began his journalism career in Washington, D.C., ultimately managing his own news bureau. In 1925, Brown married Georgia Watson Lee, one of Tom Watson’s two granddaughters. Brown organized Spartan Radiocasting Company in 1947 and served as its president, chairman and CEO. The company became one of the largest privately held television companies in the country.
Inspired in part by his friend James F. Byrnes, Brown created his own private Foundation in 1970, the Watson-Brown Foundation, named for Thomas E. Watson and J.J. Brown. Brown died in 1995, and he bequeathed the majority of his estate to the Foundation. From its headquarters in Thomson, the Foundation continues to operate its college scholarship program, to support higher education in the Southeast, and to encourage and fund scholarship on the South.
In 2001, the Watson-Brown Foundation established the Watson-Brown Foundation Fund at the Georgia Historical Society, providing perpetual care for, and access to, the GHS archives, the oldest collection of Georgia history in the nation.