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Age 100: Lucille Brooks

Remembering a Century

Photo: Noah Scialom, License: N/A, Created: 2013:03:16 17:09:25

Noah Scialom

Loud, beautiful music is coming from the Catonsville house where Lucille Brooks lives with her daughter. From the front yard, passersby can hear an upbeat rendition of the unofficial African-American national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” complete with elegant fills and flourishes. Few passersby, though, would guess that those notes were being confidently pounded out by a 100-year-old woman who was quietly singing along.

“I love that song,” she says after finishing. Brooks, who was born in East Baltimore on July 24, 1912, has spent over 90 years playing music. She grew up in a house on Jefferson Street at Central Avenue, the second of nine children. Her father worked as a stevedore and her mother as a laundress in Mount Washington. Her mother’s grandmother was a midwife in Virginia, and many of her aunts and uncles were teachers there—among the first African-American educators in many schools, “so we had to hear about that all the time as kids,” Brooks says, still rolling her eyes all these years later.

She recalls how segregated East Baltimore was when she was growing up. “Our neighborhood was all blacks and Jews,” she recalls. “A few blocks away, Broadway was all white.”

She remembers the Jewish family across her backyard who used to bring food by when her mother was working, and a little girl up the street, Sylvia Stein, who used to sneak over to her house to eat pork chops, which she wasn’t allowed to have at home. She remembers the day when the first filling station was being built in the neighborhood.

“We thought it was going to kill everybody,” she says with a warm laugh. “The idea of pumping gas underground was crazy.”

When a new school was built on the corner of Central and Orleans, one block from her house, she couldn’t go because it was whites-only. They even built the playground on the roof, she says, so black kids couldn’t play on it.

Instead, Brooks went to Dunbar Elementary, where a music teacher, Ms. Wharton, instilled a love of music in her, which continued as she grew more involved with her church, Waters A.M.E. Her mother asked local teacher Charles Dungee to teach her how to play piano, and her love of music only grew. She recalls walking to drop off her parents’ life insurance payments and stopping by Stieff’s Charles Street jewelry store to look at the pianos through the window—blacks weren’t allowed inside. One day a Mr. St. Johns—Brooks’ recollection of names is incredible for anyone at any age—noticed her persistence and snuck her inside to teach her how to play pipe organ. By the time she started Frederick Douglass High School, she was playing pipe organ for the junior choir at Waters.

When Brooks was a freshman at Douglass, none other than Cab Calloway was a senior. She recalls the iconic jazz vocalist as a popular student who performed frequently at school. Anne Brown, who would go on to be the original Bess in George Gershwin’s Broadway production of Porgy and Bess, was in the class ahead of her, and another future Broadway star, Avon Long, was in her math class. Brooks’ piano skills weren’t well-known at school until her senior year, when she played at graduation.

Brooks would go on to earn a master’s degree from Morgan State College (now University) and teach music in Baltimore City schools, including Dunbar, Carver, Patterson, and Lake Clifton, for over 50 years. Among the many students she taught and inspired was Audrey McCallum, now 75, who became the first African-American to graduate from Peabody Preparatory School and among the first to attend Peabody Conservatory. Another student, Rev. Jimmie MacDonald, went on to sing with Billy Graham.

Brooks herself played piano and organ at several churches around Baltimore over the years, including Waters, Whitestone Baptist, Timothy A.M.E., and Union Baptist, where a special ceremony was held last year to mark her 100th birthday.

She married Lloyd Marcus, a tailor, and had one daughter, also named Lucille, who followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a music teacher. She also raised a niece, Rhonda Alexander, who is now program director of Youth Opportunity Academy, an alternative school in West Baltimore.

Brooks has three grandchildren, including Joseph, a CPA; Karl, who is the principal at Edmondson High School; and Robin, a technology teacher. There are 11 great-grandchildren. It comes as no surprise that Brooks can rattle off their accomplishments with ease, from college majors and honor rolls to A’s in algebra class.

Brooks has no special plans for 101st birthday, coming in July. “I don’t need any more parties,” she says with a smile.

100 Years of City Folk

Age 10: Jaya Mandala | Age 20: Jaclyn Jones | Age 30: Andrew Syropoulos
Age 40: Samuel E. Lee Jr. | Age 50: Maureen Kramer | Age 60: Andrew Der
Age 70: James E. Locklear | Age 80: Mario Carrion | Age 90: Laura Johnson
Age 100: Lucille Brooks

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