Women’s History Month & Helen Morgan Brooks!
WOMEN'S HISTORY MONTH
A Happy Birthday Commemorating the Life of Helen Morgan Brooks!
Poet, Educator, and influential member of Quaker governance
4 March 1904 – 6 October 1989
Happy Women’s History Month from the BlackQuaker Project! We are excited to celebrate the lives and accomplishments of half the world’s population throughout March and the rest of the year. International Women’s Day was first celebrated by the Socialist Party of America in New York City in 1909 as a commemoration of the garment workers' strike in New York the previous year. Women later achieved suffrage in Russia in 1917, after which International Women’s Day would become an international holiday to be celebrated on 8 March. This date is still celebrated in Socialist countries such as China and Cuba. The USA Congress eventually expanded the one-day celebration into a month-long commemoration by designating March as Women’s History Month. Since 1987, the National Women’s History Project has declared a theme for each year’s celebration. In 2021, the theme is “Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to Be Silenced.”
Helen Morgan Brooks refused to be silent. She was a stirring poet, lifelong educator, and active member of governance within the Religious Society of Friends. Born in Reading, Pennsylvania, Brooks led an impoverished early life as her family endured financial hardship; this even included a yearlong stay in an orphanage after they moved to Philadelphia. She would go on to earn a B.A. in home economics at St. Augustine College, a historically Black college in NC, and later to study education at Temple University. Afterwards, Brooks worked as a home economist, as a dietitian, and as the editor of the poetry magazine Approach. She also taught poetry to children in the summers in Virginia Beach. Her writing reached critical acclaim, rising to such a level of prominence that her works appeared in New Negro Poets, U.S.A. (1964), edited by Langston Hughes, and The Poetry of the Negro 1749-1970, edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Wendell Bontemps. In 1955 she published A Practical Guide: One Person, One Meal, One Burner, as an aid to those in financial precarity.
Brooks joined Philadelphia Monthly Meeting (Arch Street) in 1959 at the age of 52 and served as a meeting overseer. She was highly involved within the Religious Society of Friends,
serving as a member of not only the Peace and Race Relations Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting but also the Friends Hospital Board of Managers and the Friends Journal Board of Managers. She was also a trustee at Friends Select School and received a fellowship to Pendle Hill in the 1940s, later acting as a member of its Board. At her passing, three separate funerals were held: one at Arch Street Friends meetinghouse in Philadelphia, one at Kendal at Longwood, and one at Friends Hospital.
The BlackQuaker Project will continue to profile Quaker women and men of color worldwide, many of whom are virtually unknown to us. This is a reality the BlackQuaker Project is led to correct.
To learn more about Helen Morgan Brooks and to read her selected works, please see Anne Steere Nash, “Helen Morgan Brooks (1904 -1989),” in Weaver, Kriese, and Angell, eds., Black Fire: African American Quakers on Spirituality and Human Rights (Philadelphia: Quaker Press of Friends General Conference, 2011), 138-149.
We hope that you will share with us your reactions to Friend Helen Morgan Brooks and her writings. Here are some of her published poetry and fragments of an unpublished essay:
[Unpublished manuscript from The Log Book at Pendle Hill]
I too bear record and testify to the thing that I saw. Praying all Saints and our Father in Heaven to have mercy on all little people, all hopeless ones, all hired hands, all share croppers, all tired washerwomen, all scrub women, the carriers of the hod, the laborers with pick and shovel, all menials, all who are rejected, all derelicts, all the abandoned.
The worn prostitutes, the whoremongers, the parasitical, the slaves of uncertainty, the nervous, the mentally deficient, the failing, the unwanted, the lonely, the degraded, the fallible, the delusioned, the dejected, the injured, the maligned, the sick, the weak….
Meeting for Worship
After a while,
after settling down.
in the deep quiet time.
We are embraced
by the silence
that was there,
when we entered
This child is called Black--
Once her folks were called Africans,
Then Negro, then Colored,
Now they are all called Black.
She is not the black--a black of one’s true
Nor the black of the famous painting
In the museum, simply titled, “Black,”
Or the black hole, black of far off stars dying
Her Black can be the color of honey,
Or sunsets lowering,
The color of Autumn leaves, mingled
With brown branches bending;
There’s the color of new earth turned,
Joyfully feeling great oaks,
Russet violets, or wheats fields waving;
Black can be the color of sand--
Seashore sand, washed by the movements of
Rhythmic waves crisscrossing.
All these colors strangely evident
As you look at the child;
All the tans, the browns,
All the colors of mankind,
All neutral, all blended
Into the color of her people
In this one child called, Black.
The Bus Comes
There must be love remaining.
I believe in love
In spite of things said
And deeds done or hate.
There must be love
In the spaces of things--
Worlds turning and fixed
Love does remain.
It is deep in a child’s eye
in wonder at a pink ribbon,
a china cup, a gold ring,
a healing kiss on the forehead.
Children know love
Love keeps the Michaelmas Daisies
blooming beside the gas station door,
in spite of dust
and the oil splashed sidewalk.
Love is in the fragrance
that lingers around the altar rail,
After the lilies and the carnations
have been taken out
to lie besides the new coffin.
Love lives and its vital
in the mien of those
who sit on facing benches
in quiet meeting houses,
Praying in silence,
In strong silence,
that reaches out and embraces
all gypsying thoughts
and gathers them in
to be blessed.
Love is the promise,
“I will not leave you comfortless.”
Comfortless in deep shadowed crevice,
deprived of the newness of morning,
The arch of noon,
The purple royal,
Surrounding the pin oaks in the evening.
I must believe in love
As a testimony against madness
and war and broken promises.
I choose love.
The Bus comes,
The train leaves on schedule
And love, arriving or departing,