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Dictionary of Virginia Biography


Lyman Beecher Brooks (27 May 1910–20 April 1984), president of Norfolk State College (later Norfolk State University), was born at Blakes in Mathews County, the son of John Robert Brooks, a farmer and waterman who supplemented his family's income by giving music lessons, and his second wife, Mary Anna Burrell Brooks, a schoolteacher. His mother named him for Lyman Beecher Tefft, president of Hartshorn Memorial College (later Virginia Union University), her alma mater.

Brooks enjoyed a stimulating home environment in which books and newspapers were readily available, and visiting preachers and other dignitaries often stayed with the family. He began reading at three years of age and received his early education in a one-room school at which his mother taught. Because Mathews County had no high school for African Americans, Brooks lived with an aunt so that he could attend the Middlesex Training School, which did offer three years of secondary education. He spent his fourth year of high school at Virginia Union University's secondary school in Richmond and then went on to major in mathematics there. Brooks graduated second in his class.

Brooks taught at the Middlesex Training School until 1934, when he became founding principal of the new Essex County High School. His duties included teaching, coaching athletic teams, building ties to the local community, and pressing the school board for more funds and equipment. After taking a summer course at the University of Michigan in 1936, Brooks decided to resign his job and pursue graduate studies at that institution. In 1937 and 1942, respectively, he received M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in education.

Meanwhile, on 8 June 1938 Brooks accepted an offer to become the director of the Norfolk Unit of Virginia Union University, a two-year, junior college division of that private Baptist university, which had been entirely dependent on local support since its founding in 1935. By 1938 the school had 115 students, operated on a budget of less than $12,000, and was housed in rooms rented from the Young Men's Christian Association. Brooks immediately located a suitable building and indebted himself to purchase it so that his college could start the new academic year in more appropriate quarters.

Brooks raised money, hired the best faculty that he could attract, added new programs, and increased enrollment. In March 1942, seeking financial support from the city, state, and federal governments, the school severed its ties with Virginia Union and became an independent junior college called Norfolk Polytechnic College. With the change in name, Brooks's title changed from director to president. On 29 February 1944 the school finally won financial support from the state and became the Norfolk Division of Virginia State College.

In April 1951 the city of Norfolk donated fifty-five acres in the middle of the city, previously the site of a golf course, and the college moved there in 1955. Earlier, in 1950, Brooks had created a committee to reorganize the school's curriculum and won approval from the state to become a full degree-granting institution. The first four-year programs began in elementary education and business in 1956. By 1975 twenty-nine departments offered sixty-two baccalaureate degree programs.

Enrollment at the Norfolk Division of Virginia State College exceeded that of its senior institution by the mid-1960s. Brooks began planning for separation in 1965, and on 1 February 1969 Norfolk State College became independent. In 1979, four years after Brooks retired, it became Norfolk State University. The state authorized the college to grant master's degrees in 1972, and two years later the Graduate School of Social Work began operation. Throughout the school's growth, it remained committed to Brooks's conviction that any student, given excellent teaching and motivation, could be educated. Thus, the school offered both honors programs for the most talented students and remedial programs for those less prepared.

Between 1962 and 1964 Brooks chaired a project, funded by the Cooperative Research Branch of the United States Office of Education, to study the effectiveness of vocational education in assisting unskilled workers to secure jobs. Brooks was the senior author of project reports published as Training the Hard-Core Unemployed: A Demonstration-Research Project at Virginia State College, Norfolk Division (1964) and Re-Education of Unemployed and Unskilled Workers (Summary) (1965).

Brooks married Evelyn Fields, a local schoolteacher, on 27 December 1954, and they had two daughters. His busy schedule included community service on the boards of Norfolk Community Hospital, the Hunton YMCA, and the Bank Street Baptist Church. When Brooks retired in 1975 after more than thirty-seven years at the helm of Norfolk State, the college had an enrollment of 7,500 students, occupied some 100 acres of land, and was one of the largest historically black colleges in the nation. He spent the first years of his retirement researching and writing the partly autobiographical Upward: A History of Norfolk State University (1935 to 1975), which was published in 1983. Lyman Beecher Brooks died on 20 April 1984 at Norfolk Community Hospital following a heart attack and was buried at Calvary Cemetery in that city. The Lyman Beecher Brooks Library at Norfolk State University honors his long period of leadership there.


Sources Consulted:
Lyman Beecher Brooks, Upward: A History of Norfolk State University (1935 to 1975) (1983), portraits; W. Augustus Low and Virgil A. Clift, eds., Encyclopedia of Black America (1981), 193; information provided by widow, Evelyn Fields Brooks; Norfolk Journal and Guide, 22 Feb., 1 Mar. 1975; obituaries in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 22 Apr. 1984, Norfolk Virginian Pilot, 23 Apr. 1984, and Norfolk Journal and Guide, 25 Apr. 1984.


Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Tommy L. Bogger.

How to cite this page:
Tommy L. Bogger,"Lyman Beecher Brooks (1910–1984)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2001 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Brooks_Lyman_Beecher, accessed [today's date]).


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