Albert Royal Brooks was born about 1817 in Chesterfield County, the son of Peggy Henderson, a slave. As a young man he was hired out to amanufacturer in Richmond, a pivotal event that introduced Brooks to a milieu in which slaves could earn money and a few earned enough to purchase their freedom. Hardworking, ambitious, and lucky, Brooks was among those few. He was permitted to hire his own time, a common though illegal practice whereby slaves negotiated paid employment, their owners received a fixed payment, and the slaves kept leftover earnings. Using money from his factory labors and a second job as a driver, A. R. Brooks, as his name usually appears, invested in an eating house and a hack and livery stable.
Brooks married, another Richmond slave, on February 2, 1839. They set up house in the city, joined fellow Richmond blacks in forming the First African Baptist Church when that congregation split from the First Baptist Church in 1841, and had at least five sons and four daughters, of whom four sons and three daughters survived early childhood. Two sons, Prince Albert Brooks and , were named for prominent British figures of the day. The death of Lucy Brooks’s master in 1858 threatened the dispersal of the family among the decedent’s heirs. She persuaded local buyers to purchase four children and allow them to remain in Richmond. One buyer reneged, however, and sold the eldest daughter, Margaret Ann Brooks, to an owner in Tennessee, where she died in 1862. At Albert Brooks’s urging, Daniel Von Groning, a tobacco merchant and diplomat, purchased Lucy Brooks and the younger children and kept them in . Brooks reported in 1865 that he had purchased his own freedom for $1,100, perhaps during the Civil War because he was not listed as free in censuses taken in 1850 or 1860. The emancipation of the rest of his family can be dated exactly. Von Groning freed Lucy Brooks and her young children on October 21, 1862, following the receipt of $800 from Albert Brooks, and the U.S. Army freed the remaining children on April 3, 1865. Although Albert Brooks’s good fortune depended in part on vital white support and protection, his success in conducting businesses while enslaved and his purchase of freedom for himself and other family members were indisputably heroic feats attesting to remarkable industry, self-discipline, talent, and tact.
Although it brought freedom, the war nearly ruined Brooks economically. Confederate authoritiesor destroyed most of his equipment, and by 1865 his working stock had been reduced to three hacks and one horse. His business was further threatened in June 1865 when police of Richmond’s freshly restored civilian government arrested him for failing to procure a pass signed by a white person. Caught in a joint police and army campaign to expel African American refugees from the city using the pass laws of the slavery regime, Brooks and a dozen other prominent Richmond blacks swore depositions accusing the authorities of reimposing slavery on the only truly loyal element in Richmond. A large gathering held in the First African Baptist Church chose seven local black men and a reporter from the New York Tribune to take those depositions and a protest statement to President Andrew Johnson. The city administration was subsequently deposed, and the oppressive pass and curfew laws were repealed.
The ambivalent civil rights record of Presidential Reconstruction weighed heavily on Richmond freedpeople, and they cheered the northern electorate’s massive repudiation of Johnson and his policies late in 1866. A cautious optimism, a sense that the liberating work begun with Emancipation would soon resume, swept over the black community and energized Brooks. With, the leading white radical in the city and editor of the New Nation, Brooks traveled to Washington, D.C., in January 1867 to present Republican congressmen with a petition signed by 2,400 Richmonders calling for the enactment of universal suffrage. That spring he sat on the racially mixed petit jury considering treason charges against Jefferson Davis. Brooks was simultaneously active in the Republican Party, which was being formed as a mass political organization in Virginia. He served as a delegate to the party’s first convention in Richmond in April 1867. At a nominating meeting six months later Jefferson Ward Republicans unsuccessfully proposed Brooks as a candidate for the state constitutional convention. The Republican slate won but managed to attract only a handful of white Richmond voters. Alarmed by their party’s weak showing with whites and by the division of white Unionists into warring camps, several black Republicans, including Brooks, called on white Unionists to bury their differences and join them in building a powerful, biracial, and progressive Republican Party in Virginia. Despite its eloquence their appeal failed.
Brooks withdrew from public involvement in Republican affairs in 1868, apparently for financial rather than ideological reasons. His businesses depended on white customers, and Republican activists were frequently threatened with economic reprisals for their political actions. Scores of Richmond tobacco workers lost their jobs for voting Republican late in 1867. Brooks may also have feared that his exposed political position jeopardized friendships with whites that had proved valuable in the past. In any event, he retreated from the political stage after 1867. Brooks and his family remained warm supporters and beneficiaries of such basic Reconstruction principles as universal suffrage, equal justice, public education, black uplift, and civil rights.