During the service, Brooks’ flag-draped coffin was front and center. The museum’s Victory Belles — who Brooks loved to hear perform — were among several to pay tribute to his life, harmoniously singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “Amazing Grace.” Another soloist sang a medley of songs, including “Oh Freedom,” “America” and “Glory, Glory Hallelujah!”
The museum’s president and chief executive, Stephen J. Watson, offered condolences to his family, noting that he was known at the museum as “Mr. Brooks.”
“This was his museum and we hope it felt like a second home,” said Watson, who described Brooks as a “beloved friend” and a “gentle soul who inspired all around him.”
Watson said Brooks garnered love and respect from many across the nation, noting the more than 21,500 birthday cards he received in 2020 from people in all 50 states and 30 countries.
“His secret to longevity — be nice to people. That positive attitude serves as a philosophy all of us should embrace,” Watson said. “Thank you for sharing him with us and letting us be a part of your lives.”
Cedric Richmond, a senior advisor to President Joe Biden and former Louisiana congressman, also thanked Brooks’ family for allowing his participation in the memorial highlighting “a purpose-driven life.”
“Because he is here, I am here,” Richmond said. “His blood, sweat and tears paved the way for me do all that I can do.”
Richmond also read a letter from Biden and his wife, Jill, to Brooks’ family.
“He will be remembered as a strong man and a good soldier,” Biden wrote.
Brooks was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1940. After Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, he was assigned to the mostly Black 91st Engineer General Service Regiment stationed in Australia. The 91st was a unit that built bridges, roads and airstrips for planes. Brooks was assigned as a caretaker to three white officers — cooking, driving and taking care of their clothes.
Lt. Col. Patrick Sullivan, the commanding officer of the 91st, said he never met Brooks, but was impressed nonetheless.
“It’s astonishing to me how such a brief military career could have such a lasting impact on the nation,” Sullivan said. “He served with honor and distinction.”
Sullivan noted that he did a lot of research before Saturday’s service, listening to Brooks’ oral history and recollections from his family and friends.
“The common thread,” Sullivan said, “was love. He always said ‘Be nice to people’ ... he did more than just speak it, he truly lived it. You remind us to be stronger than we were yesterday.”
Brooks was discharged from the Army in August 1945 as a private first class. When he returned from service, he worked as a forklift driver until retiring in his 60s. He has five children, five stepchildren, and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He lost his wife, Leona, shortly after Hurricane Katrina.
“Thank you for taking care of me,” read a tribute to Brooks’ daughter, Vanessa.
Following the service, a traditional jazz procession was held as Brooks’ body was transported to Mount Olivet Cemetery, where he was laid to rest.