College of Communications and Fine Arts Art Museum of the University of Memphis
Julia Hooks

Julia Hooks Musician-educator Julia Britton Werles Hooks ("the angel of Beale Street" and grandmother of Benjamin Hooks) was born in Frankfort, Kentucky, in 1852; in 1872, she moved with her minister husband Samuel Werles—who died of yellow fever—to Greenville, Mississippi, where she assisted him in the free school he established there and where she was instrumental in the election of Blanche Bruce as Mississippi's only black US senator; she moved to Memphis in 1876 to teach in the city schools.

Considered a musical prodigy from childhood, Julia Britton enrolled "in Berea College in 1869 where, from 1870-1872, while still a student, she was also listed with the faculty as instructor of instrumental music, thus becoming the first black to teach white students" in Kentucky (Historic Black Memphians 9). One of the first women to earn a college degree, Hooks was named principal of the Virginia Avenue School in Memphis, but unhappy with the quality of public education, she established the Hooks Cottage School.

Hooks was founder and a charter member of the Orphans and Old Folks Home Club and, in three years, her concerts paid for the property the club bought to set up a home for the aged and orphaned. She was founder of the Hooks School of Music, an integrated school whose pupils include stellar names ranging from W.C. Handy to Nell Hunter. In 1902, she was chosen to head the detention home set up by the newly established juvenile court for blacks, her commitment to the home remaining firm even after one of the inmates murdered her husband Charles Hooks.

The 1895 Afro-American Encyclopedia featured Hooks' essay, "Duty of the Hour," a paradigm for the magnanimous life of philanthropy led by this woman who once had to pass as her mother's slave during some of their travels for the presentation of musical performances. She died in 1942.

Dr. Joan Weatherly

Image courtesy University of Memphis Libraries, Special Collections.

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Last Updated: 2/27/13