Robert Peel Brooks

Robert Peel Brooks (1853–1882)

Robert Peel Brooks was one of Richmond's first African American lawyers and a Republican Party leader. Born into slavery, he was manumitted in 1862 and graduated from Howard University's law school in 1875. While practicing law in Richmond he also edited the Richmond Virginia Star. Brooks became involved in politics and was elected secretary of the Republican State Central Committee in 1880. Initially siding with the Funders, who advocated full payment of the state's prewar debt, he came to support the Readjusters, who sought adjustment of the debt, because they promoted black political participation. He contracted typhoid fever in 1882 and died not long before his twenty-ninth birthday. MORE...

 

Brooks was born into slavery in Richmond on October 29, 1853, the sixth of at least nine children of Albert Royal Brooks and Lucy Goode Brooks. His parents, owned by different masters, struggled to keep their family together. After Lucy Goode Brooks's master died in 1858, she found local buyers for the four eldest children, and Albert Brooks persuaded a tobacco merchant to buy his wife and their other children. Permitted to hire his time, Albert Brooks managed to save $800, with which he bought his wife and younger children. Robert Peel Brooks was accordingly manumitted on October 21, 1862.

Freedom for the remaining members of his family did not come until 1865 and the defeat of the Confederacy. Even while a slave, Albert Brooks had established a successful livery business, and he invested in the education of his younger sons. In 1865 Robert Peel Brooks and his elder brother, Walter Henderson Brooks, later a well-known Baptist minister in Washington, D.C., entered a school in Richmond sponsored by the New-England Freedmen's Aid Society. Later that year the brothers attended the Wilberforce Institute in Carolina, Washington County, Rhode Island, and they entered Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1866. They graduated in 1871, and Robert Peel Brooks went on to study law at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Peel Brooks, as his friends called him, graduated from Howard's law school in the class of 1875 and qualified in January 1876 to practice law before the Henrico County Court and the Richmond City Hustings Court. He was one of the first African American lawyers to practice in Richmond. The first, Walter G. Wynn, also a Howard graduate, qualified before the court in 1871 but moved from Richmond soon thereafter. Two other Howard-trained lawyers joined Brooks in Richmond. William Cabell Roane was a boyhood friend, and Henry B. Fry was a classmate who became Brooks's partner until his departure for Arkansas in 1880. The trio contributed occasional pieces about Richmond to the People's Advocate, an Alexandria newspaper published by blacks. In the issue of May 13, 1876, Roane reported that the white lawyers and judges in Richmond were "gentlema[n]ly and polite, and treat them in all respects like the white members of the bar."

In March 1877 a group of Richmond blacks started the Richmond Virginia Star, a newspaper that existed for at least five years. The fact that only eleven issues are known to survive makes it impossible to determine exactly when Brooks became the paper's editor. His name was on the masthead by the end of 1878, and except for a brief hiatus early in 1880, when he reported on Richmond's African American community for the white Richmond Southern Intelligencer, Brooks served as editor of the Virginia Star for at least two years and probably longer.

Those years saw turmoil in state politics, as Virginians who were determined to ease the burden of the state's huge prewar debt organized as the Readjusters in opposition to the Funders, who were adamant that the debt be paid in full. The dispute divided both the white Democratic Party and the Republican Party. During an 1879 election campaign in which the Readjusters triumphed, Brooks traveled the state advocating full payment of the debt, though he remained a Republican. At Petersburg, before an audience that included numerous white Funders, he denounced the Democratic Party for its efforts to eliminate blacks from politics. On May 1, 1880, Brooks was elected secretary of the Republican State Central Committee.

By then Brooks had concluded that the hostility of white Democrats required blacks, for their own "self-defense" and "self-respect," to support the Readjusters. In Petersburg on March 14, 1881, a convention of African American leaders endorsed a coalition with the Readjusters. Brooks did not attend, but he was present in Lynchburg in August when the Republican Party convened. After some Republicans rejected a coalition and left the convention, Brooks led the rest of the party into the Readjuster camp and then canvassed the state in that autumn's election campaign. Friends sought his appointment as United States district attorney afterward in appreciation for these efforts but were unsuccessful.

Brooks maintained his law practice and also gave legal instruction to James Highland Hayes, later a member of the Richmond city council. Robert Peel Brooks had engaged to marry a Miss Jennings, but in September 1882, already ill with tuberculosis, he contracted typhoid fever and after a month's struggle died at his mother's home in Richmond on October 10, 1882, not long before his twenty-ninth birthday. He was buried in Union Mechanics Cemetery, one of Richmond's Barton Heights cemeteries. Brooks's reputation as a lawyer and orator outlasted his short career. A year after his death, the Alexandria journalist Magnus L. Robinson credited a young lawyer with "that element of 'push' and 'tact' that characterized the late lamented R. Peel Brooks." As late as May 26, 1934, a correspondent for the Richmond Planet listed Brooks as one of the city's ten greatest blacks.

Time Line

  • October 29, 1853 - Robert Peel Brooks is born into slavery in Richmond, the sixth of at least nine children of Albert Royal Brooks and Lucy Goode Brooks.
  • 1858 - Lucy Goode Brooks's master dies. To ensure that the family is not dispersed, she finds local buyers for her four eldest children. Her husband, Albert Royal Brooks, successfully convinces a tobacco merchant to buy Lucy Goode Brooks and their remaining children.
  • October 1862 - Following the receipt of $800 from Albert Brooks, Daniel Von Groning, a tobacco merchant and diplomat, frees Lucy Goode Brooks and her young children, including Robert Peel Brooks.
  • 1865 - Robert Peel Brooks and his elder brother, Walter Henderson Brooks, enter a school in Richmond sponsored by the New-England Freedmen's Aid Society. Later that year they attend the Wilberforce Institute in Carolina, Washington County, Rhode Island.
  • 1871 - Robert Peel Brooks and his elder brother, Walter Henderson Brooks, graduate from Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where they matriculated in 1866.
  • 1875 - Robert Peel Brooks graduates from the law school at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
  • January 1876 - Robert Peel Brooks qualifies to practice law before the Henrico County Court and the Richmond City Hustings Court, making him one of the first African American lawyers to practice to Richmond.
  • March 1877 - A group of Richmond blacks start the Richmond Virginia Star, a newspaper that will exist for at least five years. Robert Peel Brooks serves as its editor for at least two years.
  • May 1, 1880 - Robert Peel Brooks is elected secretary of the Republican State Central Committee.
  • October 10, 1882 - After a month's struggle with tuberculosis and typhoid fever, Robert Peel Brooks dies at his mother's home in Richmond. He is buried in Richmond's Union Mechanics Cemetery.
  • May 26, 1934 - A correspondent for the Richmond Planet lists Robert Peel Brooks as one of the city's ten greatest blacks.
Further Reading
Brooks, Charlotte K., Joseph K. Brooks, and Walter H. Brooks III. A Brooks Chronicle: The Lives and Times of an African-American Family. Washington, D.C.: Brooks Associates, 1989.
Chesson, Michael. Richmond After the War, 1865–1890. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1981.
Dailey, Jane. Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Kneebone, John T. "Brooks, Robert Peel." In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 274–276. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
Moore, James T. "Black Militancy in Readjuster Virginia, 1879–1883." Journal of Southern History 41, no. 2 (May 1975): 167–186.
O'Brien, John Thomas Jr. From Bondage to Citizenship: The Richmond Black Community, 1865–1867. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990.
Tyler-McGraw, Marie. At the Falls: Richmond, Virginia, and Its People. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Kneebone, J. T., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Robert Peel Brooks (1853–1882). (2013, July 23). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Brooks_Robert_Peel_1853-1882.

  • MLA Citation:

    Kneebone, John T. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Robert Peel Brooks (1853–1882)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 23 Jul. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: April 18, 2013 | Last modified: July 23, 2013


Contributed by John T. Kneebone and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. John T. Kneebone is associate professor and chair of the history department at Virginia Commonwealth University.