Brooks was born probably in or near Richmond, the daughter of Judith Goode, a slave, and an unidentified white man. Her nephew John Henry Smyth became the United States minister to Liberia. On November 11, 1838, Lucy Goode became a member of the First Baptist Church of Richmond, and she joined other blacks in forming the First African Baptist Church when that congregation split from its parent in 1841.
Late in the 1830s Lucy Goode met Albert Royal Brooks, another Richmond slave. Goode had learned to read, perhaps from listening to the lessons taught to her master’s children. As she and Albert Brooks fell in love, she passed her reading skills on to him, and they conspired to write the passes that enabled him to court her. When Goode’s master died in 1838, she became the property of a man named Sublett. Her new master not only consented to her marriage on February 2, 1839, but also agreed that she could live with her husband, whose own master allowed him to operate a livery stable and eating house in return for regular payments. Brooks was permitted to keep his leftover earnings and used them eventually to purchase his freedom. The Brookses had at least five sons and four daughters, but one boy and one girl died in childhood. One son, Robert Peel Brooks, became a leader of the postwar Republican Party and was one of the first black lawyers to practice in Richmond.
Lucy Brooks’s master died by 1858, when his heirs sold her and her three youngest children to Daniel Von Groning, a local tobacco merchant known to Albert Brooks. Von Groning permitted them to live with their husband and father, and Albert Brooks agreed to pay him in installments for their freedom. Lucy Brooks then set out for Richmond’s business district to find buyers for her eldest daughter and the three eldest boys, walking along Main Street with her younger children in tow. Three local men bought her sons and agreed to allow them to live at the Brooks home so long as the youngsters came to work in the tobacco factories each day. A fourth buyer purchased her daughter and promised not to sell her away but broke his pledge. Aged eighteen, literate, and the subject of a photographic portrait that reveals a self-possessed, promising young woman, Margaret Ann Brooks was sold off to slavery in Tennessee, where she died in 1862. The betrayal pained her parents for the rest of their lives, but their brave efforts saved their other children from that fate.
Albert Brooks was one of Richmond’s most successful antebellum black entrepreneurs, but to buy his wife and three youngest surviving children from Von Groning took four years. The deed of manumission was dated October 21, 1862. The older boys did not become free until the Union army occupied Richmond on April 3, 1865. Walter Henderson Brooks, later a prominent Baptist minister in Washington, D.C., recalled the care his parents took to keep him and his siblings from realizing that they were slaves subject to being sold away from home.
After Emancipation former slaves flocked to Richmond to seek better opportunities and look for missing family members. Lucy Brooks noted some children were separated from their parents and abandoned by former masters. Having lost one of her own children to the slave trade, she had a special concern for the plight of parentless children. Brooks convinced the Ladies Sewing Circle for Charitable Work, of which she was a leader, that a home for orphans was a worthy project. She then obtained support for an orphanage from the local Cedar Creek Meeting of the Society of Friends. Brooks had probably already won the backing of several black churches, whose representatives were included in the plans that the Quaker leaders devised for governance of the orphanage.
Friends’ Asylum for Colored Orphans in Richmond
The number of Richmond children whose lives Brooks touched cannot be known, but the long life of the institution she founded to aid children without families is proof of the great need for such work. Her own children’s accomplishments can be traced to her teachings and the example she set, not least her courageous struggle to preserve her family during slavery. Albert Royal Brooks died on July 15, 1881. Lucy Goode Brooks died at her home on October 7, 1900, and was buried in Union Mechanics Cemetery, one of the Barton Heights cemeteries in Richmond.