Longtime Hopewell resident Evelyn Brooks turns 101 years old today, February 27. Known as “Nana Brooks” to friends and neighbors, Mrs. Brooks is a prominent member of her church and local Black community who has lived in the area for 80 years. This year, the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum (SSAAM) is celebrating her birthday with the premiere of a special video interview, to be released on the museum’s website and YouTube channel.
“My Nana is living history and we have an obligation to be stewards of the powerful stories of people like her,” said Mrs. Brooks’s granddaughter Catherine Fulmer-Hogan, a SSAAM Board member. “It gives me tremendous joy to be a part of honoring and preserving the stories of the woman who taught me to seek them out.”
Born in 1921, Evelyn (Dunn) Brooks grew up in Bronxville, New York. She recalls enjoying musical acts at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, where she saw jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald perform when she was just starting out as a singer. At the age of 19, Evelyn married Ira Brooks, whose family lived in Hopewell. In 1948, the couple purchased a ten-room house on a 28-acre plot of land on the Sourland Mountain, one of only three families then living on Mountain Church Road.
Evelyn and Ira Brooks raised ten children on the mountain, farming the “sour,” rocky soil to support their growing family. Evelyn was known for her quick wit and intelligence, and she and her husband were known in the neighborhood for their selflessness and generosity. At times, local farmers would leave extra produce on the Brooks family’s front porch. “In those days,” she recalled, “people were always helping each other.”
Yet, Mrs. Brooks also remembers the prejudice that African Americans faced in New Jersey when she was a young wife and mother. On one occasion in 1943, Mrs. Brooks took her two-year-old son Calvin to Ashton’s, a restaurant in Hopewell, to buy ice cream; she was turned away from the counter and told she would have to wait on the front porch.
“After that I didn’t bother to go back ever again and made sure I told all my Black friends,” she said in a 2015 interview. On another occasion, a hairdresser who catered to white women said she would do Mrs. Brooks’s hair, but only if she came to the salon at night and entered through the back door.
Over the course of the last century, Mrs. Brooks has lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights movement, and all of the change and turmoil of modern politics. As part of SSAAM’s 2022 Black History Month programming, she was interviewed and filmed by Executive Director Donnetta Johnson and her granddaughter Catherine-Fulmer Hogan.
“I was brought up in the church, and to me, what is to be is to be. It’s God’s will. Just like me being here now,” said Mrs. Brooks. “I don’t know why He is keeping me here but there is something that I’m supposed to be doing that I’m doing.”
SSAAM’s Board and staff are proud to help Mrs. Brooks share her story, an important piece of African American history in central New Jersey.
“For hundreds of years all we had were stories that were passed down by word of mouth and carried in our hearts,” said Fulmer-Hogan. “We were hard-pressed to find the proof that our ancestors were here beyond their DNA in our veins. More than anyone else, my Nana taught me to not only honor those stories, but about what we could learn from them. Without her influence in my life, there is no me on any board of any museum.”
Mrs. Brooks’s new video interview will be released in three episodes on SSAAM’s YouTube channel on her birthday, February 27, 2022, at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGNN62QtWapz0K4duaZ6HtA
Episode 1 – On being “colored” and raising Black children in a predominantly white community in the 1940s and 1950s
Episode 2 – On marriage and true partnership
Episode 3 – On Living Well and Longevity
More information about SSAAM’s Black History Month programming can be found at the museum’s website: https://www.ssaamuseum.org/upcoming-events
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