As a child, Lucille “Doonie” Brooks would walk to deliver her parents’ life insurance payments and, on the way, stop at Stieff’s jewelry store on Charles Street to look at the pianos. Blacks weren’t allowed inside, but one day, Brooks recalled during a City Paper interview in 2012, a Mr. St. Johns, who worked there, noticed her persistence and snuck her inside and taught her how to play the pipe organ, and soon she was playing for the junior choir at her church, Waters A.M.E.
It was the beginning of a very long life of playing and loving music, a love she passed on to countless children as an educator in Baltimore city schools, including Dunbar, Carver, Patterson, and Lake Clifton, for more than 50 years. When City Paper spoke to her, she was 100. She died in October of congestive heart failure at the age of 102.
Brooks grew up on Jefferson Street at Central Avenue, the second of nine children. Her father was a stevedore and her mother a laundress in Mount Washington. She recalled how segregated East Baltimore was when she was growing up. “Our neighborhood was all blacks and Jews,” she recalled. “A few blocks away, Broadway was all white.”
She remembers the day when the first filling station was being built in the neighborhood. “We thought it was going to kill everybody,” she said with a warm laugh. “The idea of pumping gas underground was crazy.”
When Brooks was a freshman at Douglass High School, Cab Calloway was a senior, and she remembered the iconic jazz performer as a popular student who was always playing music around school. Anne Brown—the original Bess in George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”—was in the class ahead of her, and Broadway and film star Avon Long was in her math class.
Among Brooks’ students were Audrey McCallum, now 75, the first African-American to graduate from Peabody Preparatory School and among the first to attend Peabody Conservatory, and Rev. Jimmie MacDonald, who sang with Billy Graham.
Brooks’ only child, also named Lucille, followed in her footsteps as a music teacher. She 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 Perry, who is the principal at Edmondson High School; and Robin, a technology teacher. There are 11 great-grandchildren.
“My grandmother talked me into become an educator by mentioning all of the benefits—snow days, summers off, salary for working only 10 months,” Perry says in an email. “She always taught me to work hard, establish a personal relationship with The Lord and treat people fairly.”