Filed Under Black History

Organizing for Equality

Elizabeth Carter Brooks

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.

Images

Elizabeth Carter Brooks Portrait of Elizabeth Carter Brooks (1867-1951) courtesy of Martha Briggs Educational Club. Source: Martha Briggs Educational Club
The historic New Bedford Home for the Aged, 396 Middle St., New Bedford Built in 1909, this house was designed by Elizabeth Carter Brooks to be the New Bedford Home for the Aged. A stately establishment, the Home provided a comfortable life for the city’s aged residents until the 1990s. Today it is a private residence. Source: New Bedford Whaling Museum Date: 2020
Elizabeth Carter Brooks Portrait This artwork is a collaboration between five students at Catherine Carter Art Studio in New Bedford, MA, created for New Bedford Whaling Museum's Lighting the Way IGNITE Showcase in 2020. Each portrait is "framed" to simulate the type of elaborate gilt frame popular during Elizabeth's time. Each frame is decorated with a different symbol by a different student: mortar board to represent Elizabeth as a Swain School graduate (Audrey W.), books and apple for her role as an educator (Alaina C.), hands to represent her community activism (Ariana M.), monogram (Sophie M), and a house drawing for her work as an architect (Leila H.). The five portraits were presented in a format inspired by another photograph of Ms. Brooks, a five-framed grouping of images, part of the Library of Congress' collection. Source: Catherine Carter Art Studio, New Bedford, MA Creator: Students enrolled at the Catherine Carter Art Studio Date: 2020
Elizabeth Carter Brooks Elementary School Elizabeth Carter Brooks was a public school teacher at the Taylor School in New Bedford for 25 years. After her death, in 1957 the city named the Elizabeth Carter Brooks School at 212 Nemasket Street in her honor. Source: New Bedford Public Schools Creator: New Bedford Public Schools Date: 2020

Location

396 Middle Street, New Bedford, MA 02740 | The former New Bedford Home for the Aged is now a private residence. Please respect the privacy of the owners.

Metadata

By Tom Begley with Ann O’Leary with research support from Lee Blake and the New Bedford Historical Society and Lighting the Way: Historic Women of the SouthCoast, an initiative of New Bedford Whaling Museum., “Organizing for Equality,” Rhode Tour, accessed September 29, 2022, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/392.