Juanita Kathryn Brooks
May 3, 1926-Feb. 18, 2023
Menlo Park and Redwood City, California
Juanita Kathryn Watson Brooks, whose passion for her family and whose steadfast commitment to Bay Area education shaped a generation of Peninsula students of color, died on Saturday, February 18th in Redwood City, California. She was 96 years old. An ardent wife, a beloved mother, a dazzling Brooks family matriarch, a committed teacher, and an elegant and dynamic Peninsula community member for over half a century, she peacefully succumbed to illness surrounded by her children and their spouses as well as grand and great-grandchildren at Redwood City’s Sunrise Senior Living facility.
Born on May 3, 1926 in Texarkana, Texas to Arthur Watson, a pipe factory worker, and Gertrude Graham Watson, a homemaker, Juanita was an only child. She thrived on the love of her parents who provided her with a safe and supportive home life in spite of the awesome challenges posed by Jim Crow segregation and the Great Depression.
From a young age, she exceled in school and garnered praise from her teachers, and her strength in this regard led her to making history in 1923. Selected that year by her second-grade teacher to participate in the city of Texarkana’s annual Christmas parade, Juanita both broke the color barrier in that yearly event and carried the first African American doll ever sold in the area as she rode on a truck in the procession.
She went on to graduate from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Texarkana, and in 1947, she earned a B.S. in Business Administration from Prairie View A&M University. She then embarked on a career in education that would stretch across the next forty years, beginning her work by teaching English grammar in a small, rural schoolhouse in Okolona, Arkansas. This was a job that set Juanita on her lifelong path as an instructor devoted to mentoring, and advocating for children, and especially children of color whom she encouraged to strive for excellence as a way to transcend the many barriers facing them in American culture.
In 1948, she met her future spouse, life partner, and the great love of her life, Nathaniel Hawthorne Brooks, a fellow teacher based in Hope, Arkansas. Juanita and Nathaniel married on June 21, 1950 and made the epic move to the San Francisco Bay Area soon after. They rode the Great Migration stream of African Americans fleeing the danger of the American South with its domestic racial terror and gross economic inequality, seeking “the warmth of other suns,” as Pulitzer Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson has famously referred to this phenomenon. There, they started a family, giving birth to their first two children, Nathaniel, Jr. and Renel in the East Bay, and continuing their respective careers in education.
This was also the period when Juanita, whose love of baseball had been nurtured in her by her father, fully flourished with the arrival of the San Francisco Giants baseball club in 1958. The Giants’ move from New York to the City by the Bay was an electrifying moment for baseball fanatic Juanita, and she remained the deepest and most loyal fan of the orange and black for the rest of her life. She also delighted in watching her daughter, Renel Brooks-Moon, become the first African American female public address announcer in Major League Baseball in the year 2000, and the first female announcer of a championship game in any professional sport when the Giants reached the 2002 World Series.
Juanita and Nathaniel made the move to Menlo Park in 1966 when Nathaniel became the first African American school administrator in the Sequoia Union school district, and the couple stayed on the Peninsula as Nathaniel went on to become the first African American high school principal in San Francisco in 1968 at Polytechnic High School and later continued his work as a Sequoia Union school district administrator.
After giving birth to her third child, Daphne, in 1968, Juanita accepted a job teaching in the Ravenswood School District, forming bonds with her students and championing their achievements through the creation of popular special displays that highlighted their gifts and individuality. She inspired generations of African American, Latino, and Asian-American students, young people from both longtime California families and newly arrived immigrant families, as she encouraged them to pursue their educational hopes and dreams and recognize their full worth and potential as citizens of their community. She put in tireless hours participating in parent-teacher conferences, classroom prep, and faculty meetings. And above all else, she exhibited grace, warmth, and generosity in the classroom to all who took her classes. She served the district for nineteen years before retiring in 1989.
Juanita and Nathaniel were known for enjoying their “empty nest” retirement life together, traveling to high school and college reunions in Texas and Arkansas and maintaining active membership in their local Bay Area high school and college alumni clubs as well. They became devout members of St. John Missionary Baptist Church in 1994.
After Nathaniel’s passing in 2003, Juanita maintained a truly vibrant social life for nearly twenty additional years. She triumphantly and bravely beat breast cancer at the age of 79, and she proudly marched in support of breast cancer awareness and research to fight the disease on multiple occasions. She championed the achievements of all of her children and grand-children, including son Nate’s successful career in real estate and youngest daughter Daphne’s appointment as William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of African American Studies, American Studies, Women’s Gender & Sexuality Studies and Music at Yale University. Juanita also remained close to her longtime neighbors on Shirley Way in Menlo Park, sources of lasting friendship and support to her for more than half a century and even after her move to Sunrise Senior Living in Redwood City in November of 2022.
Through it all, Juanita sustained a passion for morning walks (which she began in 1989 with neighbor Patti Price), her dance class, various social activities, and community service focused on education. She was a regular attendee at the St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church’s weekly Bible classes, and she stayed supportive of both her own as well as Nathaniel’s college alumni club organizations. She served on St. John’s scholarship committee for many years and served as secretary for nearly every organization in which she has ever participated, including the Social Heritage Club and the Senior Club at the Onetta Harris Community Center in Menlo Park. Though her time at Sunrise was brief, she was known for “lighting up the dining hall” with her effervescent personality and her colorful ensembles. She developed warm friendships with fellow residents in her three-month period of residing there.
In addition to her three children, Juanita is survived by her son Nathaniel Brooks, Jr.’s wife Sally, her daughter Renel Brooks-Moon’s husband Tommie L. Moon, her daughter Dr. Daphne A. Brooks’ husband, Dr. Matthew Frye Jacobson; five grandchildren, Nadya, Nathaniel Hawthorne III and wife Stephanie, Melissa, Anthony, and Megan; five great-grandchildren, Michael, Nalaya, Sydney, Jacoby and Greyson; and a niece, LeNelle Woods Thompson and her spouse Ludwig Thompson of Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
Tags: teacher/educator, public service