Brooks was born into slavery in Richmond on October 29, 1853, the sixth of at least nine children ofand . His parents, owned by different masters, struggled to keep their family together. After Lucy Goode Brooks’s master died in 1858, she found local for the four eldest children, and Albert Brooks persuaded a merchant to buy his wife and their other children. Permitted to , 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.
for the remaining members of his family did not come until 1865 and the . 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 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 whiteand 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.