Brooks, Albert R. (c. 1817–1881)


Albert R. Brooks was a Richmond businessman who thrived before the American Civil War (1861–1865) despite his enslavement. In the antebellum years Brooks took advantage of the common though illegal practice of earning wages for his work, which he then invested in an eating house and a prosperous hack and livery stable. Between 1862 and 1865 Brooks managed to purchase his freedom, his wife’s, and that of most of their children. After the war Brooks became a community leader. He helped halt the revival of slavery-era pass laws that governed African American movement in the city and sat on the racially mixed jury that considered Jefferson Davis‘s treason charges. He was also active in the state’s nascent Republican Party. Brooks retreated from political activity in 1868, possibly worried that his white customers would boycott his businesses, but continued to support universal suffrage, equal justice, public education, black uplift, and civil rights. Brooks died in 1881 and is probably buried in Richmond’s Union Mechanics Cemetery.

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 a tobacco manufacturer 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.

Robert Peel Brooks

Brooks married Lucy Goode, 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 Robert Peel Brooks, 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 Richmond. 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.

First African Baptist Church

Although it brought freedom, the war nearly ruined Brooks economically. Confederate authorities confiscated or 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.

Rev. Jas. W. Hunnicutt.

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 James Hunnicutt, 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.

Brooks’s real estate holdings were valued at $2,000 in 1870 and $1,700 in 1880. A successful businessman and deacon of the First African Baptist Church, Brooks supported his wife’s philanthropic endeavors and his children’s educational aspirations. Lucy Goode Brooks was a moving force behind the establishment of the Friends’ Asylum for Colored Orphans in 1867. Brooks sent his youngest sons, Walter Henderson Brooks and Robert Peel Brooks, to high school, college, and professional school. The former became an outstanding Baptist minister in Washington, D.C., and the latter was one of the first black lawyers admitted to the bar in Richmond. The youngest daughters, Alberta Maria Brooks and Lucy Gertrude Brooks, were educated in Richmond public schools, a legacy of Reconstruction, and became teachers. Having lived to see his family free and prospering, Brooks died at his home on July 15, 1881, and was buried probably in Union Mechanics Cemetery, one of the Barton Heights cemeteries in Richmond.

ca. 1817
Albert R. Brooks is born in Chesterfield County, the son of Peggy Henderson, a slave.
February 2, 1839
Albert R. Brooks marries Lucy Goode. They will have at least five sons and four daughters, of whom four sons and three daughters will survive early childhood.
October 29, 1853
Robert P. Brooks is born into slavery in Richmond, the sixth of at least nine children of Albert R. Brooks and Lucy Goode Brooks.
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 R. Brooks, successfully convinces a tobacco merchant to buy Lucy Goode Brooks and their remaining children.
Margaret A. Brooks, the eldest daughter of Albert R. Brooks and Lucy Goode Brooks, dies in Tennessee. She was separated from her family in 1858, when her master, who had promised her mother he would not sell her away, sold her into slavery in Tennessee.
October 21, 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.
Albert R. Brooks reports that he has purchased his own freedom for $1,100.
April 3, 1865
The U.S. Army enters Richmond, and the remaining children of Lucy Goode Brooks and Albert R. Brooks become free.
June 1865
The police of Richmond's restored civilian government arrest Albert R. Brooks for failing to procure a pass signed by a white person.
January 1867
Albert R. Brooks travels to Washington, D.C., to present Republican congressmen with a petition signed by 2,400 Richmonders calling for the enactment of universal suffrage.
April 1867
Albert Brooks serves as a delegate to the Republican Party's first convention in Richmond.
Spring 1867
Albert R. Brooks sits on the racially mixed petit jury considering treason charges against Jefferson Davis.
October 1867
At a nominating meeting, Jefferson Ward Republicans unsuccessfully propose Albert R. Brooks as a candidate for the state constitution convention.
July 15, 1881
Albert R. Brooks dies at his home. He is probably buried in Union Mechanics Cemetery in Richmond.
  • Chesson, Michael. Richmond After the War, 1865–1890. Richmond: Virginia State Library, 1981.
  • O’Brien, John T. “Brooks, Albert Royal.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 269–270. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
  • 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.
APA Citation:
O'Brien, John. Brooks, Albert R. (c. 1817–1881). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/brooks-albert-r-c-1817-1881.
MLA Citation:
O'Brien, John. "Brooks, Albert R. (c. 1817–1881)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 06 May. 2021
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