Rochester’s Roots: The child of former slaves who changed the course of history

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AUBURN, N.Y. The story of Edward Ulysses Anderson Brooks speaks to the strength of the human spirit. 

I was having lunch at the home of a couple that attends my church and has become dear friends. And that day, one of them shared something that left me in awe. And I knew I had to share it with you.

Bob Brooks is by all accounts a successful man. He’s happily married to his lifelong love, Lucille, has had a fulfilling career as an electrical engineer and two great kids who are now business owners in Brooklyn.

 He’s now happily retired, living a quiet unassuming life in the Rochester area. I’ve been friends with Bob and his wife since I moved to Western New York six years ago. 

I thought I knew Bob Brooks. But I had no idea he is the grandson of a trailblazer, a man who did what none had done before him.

 “He got a scholarship to go to Cornell University,” Bob said smiling. 

 The year was 1890. Edward Ulysses Anderson Brooks, the son of former slaves, was the first African-American to earn a degree from that prestigious university.

 “And then he went to get a law degree,” Bob added. 

He earned a master’s degree in Law at Cornell’s law school.

 “It shows that he was smart, had academic rigor, and had a serious work ethic,” said Rachel Dworkin, an archivist with the Chemung County Historical Society. The organization has researched Brooks’ life and accomplishments. 

 Edward Ulysses Anderson Brooks was not only a man of incredible intellect, but he also had a deep-abiding faith. After practicing law for a few years, he earned another degree at Auburn Theological Seminary, making him the perfect person to lead a historic Auburn church, A.M.E. Zion, a church that hosted countless notable people, including Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and a parishioner that he lovingly called Auntie Harriett.

“That is where he met Harriett Tubman,” said Dworkin. “So Harriett Tubman had founded an organization called the Harriett Tubman Home for the Aged.”

 That Auburn home still stands on Tubman’s estate of more than 30 acres. There she served the needs of Blacks who made the great migration north. And the executor and director of Tubman’s operation was her pastor, Reverend Brooks.

 “He had a personal friendship with her, but he was also someone who could reach out to Booker T. Washington and help with fundraising,” said Dworkin.

 And he used those connections to help Tubman. She had served the union army valiantly working as a scout and a spy, leading a raid that freed 700 slaves. But the military refused to grant her the pension she was due because she was a woman.

 Reverend Brooks penned a letter to Booker T. Washington, who successfully lobbied for Tubman’s hard-earned $10 per week. But Rev. Brooks’ advocacy didn’t end there. He established a chapter of the NAACP, fought for housing and opportunity, and likely faced obstacles that must have seemed insurmountable.

 “He never got mad,” said Bob. “That’s what I’ve been told. He was very mild mannered.”

 That’s a trait Bob shares with his granddad. Bob was just 11 when his grandfather died. But Rev. Brooks left an extraordinary legacy. His progeny, who are thriving all across Upstate New York, are the embodiment of his dreams realized. 

 That’s why Edward Ulysses Anderson Brooks and the Brooks family are a part of Rochester’s roots.