Equality was the vision driving Elizabeth Carter Brooks’ (1867-1951) work as an educator, social activist, and architect. She wove these seemingly separate paths into a long life of advocacy for African Americans of New Bedford and beyond in a time when African Americans faced many obstacles and overt racism in both the South and the North in the United States.
In 1901, Elizabeth became the first African American woman hired as a public-school teacher in New Bedford. She taught at the William H. Taylor School for over 25 years. When she retired the New Bedford’s Superintendent of Schools noted that “her work was characterized by a sympathetic understanding of children...Thousands of children in New Bedford will remember Miss Carter and her kindly influence over them for many years to come.”
As a social activist, Elizabeth organized local, regional, and national groups that supported African American achievement. In 1896, nearly 200 clubs across the country combined to establish the National Association of Colored Women Clubs (NACWC). Elizabeth was elected vice president of NACWC in 1906 and served as the group’s fourth president from 1908-1912. During her administration, Elizabeth set up a scholarship, started a newspaper, and strengthened the NACWC. She was the first Association president to travel across the country meeting with local and regional organizations. African American women’s clubs like the NACWC, and the local chapter of the Martha Briggs Educational Club, are rooted in a long history of activism against racism and sexism including anti-lynching and voting rights campaigns. They promoted education and training as the means to lift up and advance women of color. The NACWC and its affiliated clubs continue the work set out in their original mission.
Elizabeth joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) soon after it was formed and later headed the NAACP’s regional and local New Bedford branches. Elizabeth used her educational expertise and activism to organize the Elizabeth Carter Brooks Jr. Girls Club. Meeting on Friday afternoons, the young women studied African American history, explored current events and advocacy, worked with senior community members, and promoted kindness and good deeds.
As a child, Elizabeth enjoyed cheering up elderly people. She noted how they “all seem to feel that I understand them.” Yet she saw a lack of loving care for the city’s elders. With the endorsement of the Women's Loyal Union, she raised enough money and support in 1897 to create New Bedford's first organized home serving elderly women of color. Eleven years later, she designed the Home for the Aged’s permanent location at 396 Middle Street. A stately establishment, the Home provided a comfortable life for the city’s aged residents until the 1990s.
Through her educational, architectural, and organizing skills, Elizabeth Carter Brooks’ activism enriched the lives of New Bedford’s students, elderly, and people of color. To honor her legacy, the New Bedford Public Schools dedicated a school building in her name. Elizabeth’s activism and accomplishments are still remembered in the city and the country. Her work lives on in the women still fighting for equality today.