Lyman Beecher Brooks, the first president of Norfolk State University, was born on May 27, 1910, in Blakes, Virginia, to John Robert Brooks, a farmer and pianist, and Mary Anna Burrell Brooks, a schoolteacher and graduate of Virginia Union University. He started reading at the age of three and received his early education in a one-room school run by his mother. Brooks lived with an aunt while attending the Middlesex Training School in Richmond, which offered three years of secondary education because Mathews County had no high school for African Americans. He majored in mathematics after spending his fourth year of high school at Virginia Union University’s secondary school in Richmond. Brooks came in second place in his class.
Brooks was a teacher at the Middlesex Training School until 1934, when he became the first principal of the new Essex County High School. Brooks earned a Master of Arts in education from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1937. He received his Doctor of Philosophy in education from the same institution five years later, in 1942.
Brooks became the director of Virginia Union University’s Norfolk junior college division in 1938, in a room in the black Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) near Church Street and Tidewater Park (Gardens). The college had 115 students by the end of the academic year in 1939.
The junior college was renamed Norfolk Polytechnic College in 1942, and Brooks served as its first president.
Following Virginia legislature appropriations, 55 acres of land in Norfolk were allotted in 1951 for the development of the physical infrastructure of Norfolk’s first HBCU. It would be close to the city’s center. Norfolk State College broke away from Virginia State University in 1969 to become an independent institution.
Throughout this time, Brooks was the institution’s president. President Brooks married Evelyn Fields, a local schoolteacher, on December 27, 1954, and they had two daughters. Brooks chaired a project funded by the Cooperative Research Branch of the United States Office of Education between 1962 and 1964 to investigate the effectiveness of vocational education in assisting unskilled workers in obtaining jobs. President Brooks was a co-author on project reports such as “Training the Hard-Core Unemployed: A Demonstration-Research Project at Virginia State College, Norfolk Division,” published in 1964, and “Re-Education of Unemployed and Unskilled Workers,” published in 1965.
Norfolk State College was renamed Norfolk State University in 1979, four years after Brooks retired. In 1972, the state authorized the college to grant master’s degrees, and two years later, in 1974, the Graduate School of Social Work opened its doors. Throughout its development, the school remained committed to Brooks’ belief that any student could be educated with excellent teaching and motivation. As a result, the school provided honors programs for the most gifted students and remedial programs for those who were less prepared.
Lyman Beecher Brooks stepped down as President of Norfolk State University in 1975 after more than 37 years in charge. He oversaw the school’s enrollment increase from less than 500 students in 1942 to more than 5,400 students in 1975. Upward: A History of Norfolk State University was published by Howard University Press in 1983. Lyman Beecher Brooks died on April 20, 1984, at the age of 74, less than a year later. The Lyman Beecher Brooks Library, located in the heart of campus, is dedicated to his legacy.