From Head Start to president: Georgetown son Cornell William Brooks

  • Wednesday, July 30, 2014

AP Photo/John Locher Vice President Joe Biden, right, shakes hands with NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks at the NAACP annual convention Wednesday, July 23, 2014, in Las Vegas. Biden called on members of the NAACP to spread the word about what he called “a hailstorm” of measures to restrict citizens’ ability to vote, trying to rally the Democratic Party’s base before the midterm elections.


Cornell William Brooks, the newly appointed President and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), has deep feelings for his hometown of Georgetown.

“Georgetown is my home, and I am very interested in it, and sensitive to the issues that are taking place there,” Brooks said in a July 25 interview with the Georgetown Times.

Brooks, who attended local Head Start programs as a young boy and later graduated from Winyah High School, was presented to the NAACP as its new president and chief executive officer at the organization’s 105th annual convention from July 19 to 25 in Las Vegas, Nev.

Brooks, 53, lovingly and vividly recounted his childhood, and gave special attention to the time he spent with his grandparents, who lived on Prince Street. “I didn’t move to Georgetown until I was just about to begin junior high,” Brooks related. “But I spent every single summer of my life there with my grandparents.”

Brooks described his grandparents’ neighborhood as ethnically and culturally diverse. “If you went to the end of my grandparents’ street and turned the corner, you would find a block full of white families.” Brooks said. “Just beyond that block, if you turned yet another corner, you would find a block of Jewish families.” Brooks was aware of informal segregation as a child, but mainly remembers how much fun he would have in the summers playing with all the children from the neighborhood melting pot.

“That side of town was not segregated. It was a powerful metaphor for the South,” Brooks said, referring to how the different groups were able to accept each other and live harmoniously in the same neighborhood.

Brooks’ family moved from El Paso, Texas, to Georgetown shortly before he began junior high at St. Cyprians Catholic School. His father was a physician, and his family lived in Maryville, and later had a home on Merriman Road. Brooks attended Winyah High School and was voted “most likely to succeed” by his fellow classmates. “Believe it or not, most of my classmates who voted for me were white,” Brooks recalled, another example in Georgetown of friendships eclipsing ethnic and racial lines.

Brooks attributes a great deal of his success as an adult to the multi-cultural and spiritual upbringing of his Georgetown childhood. He noted that his grandparents and parents made sure he was culturally and spiritually well-rounded. Growing up in the Bethel AME Church had a profound influence on his life. “When you come up in a church like Bethel,” he said, “it’s not hard to see how I ended up where I am now.”

Brooks recalled sitting in the pews of Bethel’s historic sanctuary and listening to Rev. Jessie Jackson. “I’m not sure how old I was, but I just remember the idea of the world opening up to me,” he said. “It was a morally formative experience.”

Brooks is a fourth-generation minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church; the only denomination, he says proudly, to be established out of social protest when its black founders left the Methodist Church because of its segregationist practices.

Brooks learned a great deal from his grandparents. He attributes his pursuit of educational excellence to his grandmother. “She had me in about four different preschools in Georgetown, including a Head Start program before I started kindergarten.” Brooks attributes his values as a leader and as a person to his grandfather. “I discovered at a young age that my grandparents and parents were not given to giving up.”

His grandfather, the Rev. James Edmund Prioleau, ran unsuccessfully for Congress in the 1940s in a symbolic effort to inspire an increase in voter registration among blacks and to help recruit NAACP members. As a child growing up in Georgetown, he remembers how his family carried on his grandfather’s vision of building not only a stronger NAACP, but also a stronger Georgetown.

Brooks described how his family would set out secretively on Sunday evenings to attend local NAACP meetings. “My mother, father and grandparents would all attend, but they would arrive separately,” he said. “Some might walk, others would take cars, but they would not arrive together.” The local NAACP meetings were held covertly because of concern about a possible political backlash in the community, in the wake of the civil rights movement in the South. Brooks said his family has always been committed to moving their town, state, and nation forward – and the NAACP has given them a path to do that. “My life is the direct product of the legacy of the blood, sweat and tears of the NAACP,” he said.

Brooks could not narrow his fondest Georgetown memories down to just one or two, but he listed the “emancipation parades” near the top of his list. The parades celebrated the civil rights gains of black people in America, but also symbolized the future for Brooks – what could still be achieved. “Those parades on Front Street were unbelievable,” he said. “Watching those parades, I realized that I was taking part in African American history.”

Recalling the Friday night football games between Howard and Winyah high schools evoked a vivid trip down memory lane for Brooks. “Watching those games was like watching a Super Bowl. Not just the games, but the rivalry between the marching bands was amazing as well.”

Brooks also has fond memories of his high school teachers. “The teachers at Winyah High School opened up the world to me. They encouraged me to aspire higher.” Brooks credits his teachers with encouraging him at an early age to believe in educational excellence.

Although Brooks’ memories are heavily weighted with positive experiences, he pointed out that he was very aware of and encountered some racist teachers along his way. “I was very aware of the racial challenges around me,” he said. “I had to constantly consider the world around me, and continue to aspire higher.”

Brooks’ is well aware of the 1997 consent decree between the U.S. Department of Justice and the Georgetown School District requiring the school district to address the Justice Department’s concerns that there has been inequality in facilities and staffing among the district’s schools. In recent years, district officials have sought to show the Justice Department that the district has made sufficient progress and should be removed from federal oversight. Justice Department officials recently conducted a “fact finding” visit to Georgetown to hear from community members and assess the district’s progress.

“It is clear by the outpouring of public concern that the folks in Georgetown are involved and committed to the proper education of their children,” Brooks said. He encouraged the citizens of Georgetown to continue pressing for education equality and to never “give in to giving up.”

“I am really, really sensitive to the issues surrounding my home town,” Brooks said. “The NAACP will always be involved in areas of education, from the Supreme Court right down to the local school board meeting.”

Brooks hopes that the citizens of Georgetown and around the country will realize that the glory days of the NAACP are not gone; rather the glory days are today. “We are still making history, and I challenge our young people to step up and become involved.” He pointed out that seven of the 64 seats on the NAACP Board of Directors are reserved for young people from their late teens to their early 20s. “That’s how seriously dedicated we are to the young people of this generation.”

Brooks plans on combining age and experience with youth and youthful imagination, working side-by-side to take the NAACP into the next millennium. “We are not asking young people to come to the kiddy table,” he said. “We are asking them to come to the conference table and engage.”

Determined to dismiss the notion that the NAACP is a retirement home for civil rights activists, Brooks said: “We want folks from all walks of life, and backgrounds. We want to build a multi-ethnic, multi-generational NAACP.”

Brooks has headed the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ) since 2007. During that time, the institute won landmark direct service and policy reform victories. The NJISJ is a Newark, N.J.-based urban research and advocacy organization dedicated to the advancement of New Jersey’s cities and their neighborhoods, families and individual residents.

Douglas Eakely, the NJISJ’s board chairman, believes Brooks will not disappoint his hometown at all. “Cornell has a tremendous amount of commitment, passion and eloquence,” he said, “He can be very persuasive.”

Brooks is also committed to visiting his hometown soon. “I can’t give you an exact date, but it will be very soon.” Brooks hopes to meet with young people in Georgetown looking to join the NAACP. “That would be the best present I could receive as president – coming to my hometown and engaging young people in moving forward with us in to the new millennium.”

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