The Rt. Rev. Bishop H. Hartford Brookins, the spiritual leader
H.H. Brookins, man of the people
Brookins AME named in honor of H.H.
FAME the church that H.H. built
A retired H.H.
The Rt. Rev. Bishop H. H. Brookins, a Giant among Men, Passes On
He was truly a bishop’s bishop, a preacher’s preacher, a man of all seasons for the right reasons. He built the First AME Church.
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Sentinel Managing Editor
It’s a very long way from Yazoo City, Mississippi to the Halls of Congress, State Houses, City Halls and the White House, but Bishop H. H. Brookins has been there, “an don dat”; he has traveled that path and has gone the distance. Along the way, he has touched the lives of other bishops, ministers, mayors, governors and presidents yet, he has always remained a pastor to his people. He has walked with princes and paupers; dined with kings, rulers and peasants; he has counseled those in power and those without power; he has preached to the masses and the classes; but has always remained close to the people.
Hamel Hartford Brookins was born in Yazoo City, Mississippi, the son of Samuel and Lena Brookins, and like most Black people in the South at the time, they were sharecroppers. During this period in the South, and particularly in Mississippi, segregation and Jim Crow were the law–de facto and de jure. It was a time when Negroes couldn’t even walk in White folks’ shadow, and that was the social environment that nursed Brookins’ formative years before he traveled to the North to seek an education.
To clearly understand and appreciate the life and the works of H.H. (as he was affectionately called) Brookins, it is important to note that he was a multi-faceted and multi-talented individual. He was a religious leader, a preacher in the church; and a civil leader outside the church. He dealt with civic matters outside of the church, and has traveled the historical path of icons of the civil rights struggles, who have pastored their flocks and served their constituents simultaneously and consistently–icons like Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Minister Malcolm X, Rev. Dr. Thomas Kilgore Jr., and Bishop Nat Turner. Like those men, and many other heroes/sheroes of the struggles, H.H. Brookins has traveled parallel paths -religious and civic–aiming at the same goals. He would be in the pulpit in the morning and in the streets in the afternoon, both times serving the needs of the people.
In his dual mission, he blended the charisma of a fire-and-brimstone, street corner preacher with the charm and refinement of a skilled, platform orator. And through many “named” people, he rose to international prominence (on two continents: in Africa and USA) as a champion of Black political and economic empowerment, African liberation movements, business enterprise development, and the growth of the church–all in furtherance of his mission to help Black people.
Though a legend in Los Angeles, he arrived here via Wilberforce University, Payne Theological Seminary and the University of Kansas. It was as pastor of St. Paul AME in Kansas that Brookins began his social activism “outside” of the church. One of his school mates at Payne, former Bishop Vinton Henderson, once said, “H.H. was convinced that the church could not just do business between its four walls on Sunday morning, and therefore he was always involved in ministry to the wider community. He would often say, ‘You can’t lead from behind’.”
It was in the wake of the 1954 Brown decision that he was thrust into the civil rights arena. There were hostile reactions to the court’s decision and Brookins organized a 200-member interracial ministerial alliance committed to the peaceful implementation of the Brown decision. From there he was appointed to the First AME Church (FAME) of Los Angeles which was located in the downtown area.
Getting familiar with Los Angeles took Brookins in the midst of the Watts Rebellion of 1965 in the role of peacemaker. As membership in the church grew, so was his influence. One of his members was Thomas Bradley (future mayor of Los Angeles); they struck up a relationship that went beyond pastor and congregant, and Brookins became Bradley’s political mentor and guide.
During that time he also became acquainted with a man named Jimmy Roosevelt who had run unsuccessfully for mayor of Los Angeles against Sam Yorty, then the mayor. Roosevelt had tapped Brookins’ for assistance in his short termed political career and the quid pro quo was that Brookins told him that he needed some help to build a million-dollar church and a youth center. Roosevelt then moved to New York.
While sitting in his office one day, he received a call from John Factor who asked him out to lunch. According to Brookins, what he did not know was that his life and his fortunes were about to make drastic change.
When H.H. had helped Jimmy Roosevelt in his unsuccessful attempt to become the Mayor of Los Angeles, Roosevelt offered to pay him but Brookins declined any compensation.
The quid pro quo from Roosevelt arrived in the person of John Factor, brother of Max Factor, the cosmetic tycoon. He was shocked when Factor gave him a check for $150,000. Brookins’ vision to build his million-dollar, mega church began to take shape.
After Brookins announced that he was going to build a million-dollar church, he received a call from Judge Bernard Jefferson, also a member of FAME. Jefferson said, “You ought not talk like that, making a joke about a million-dollar church. You know you’re not gonna build a million-dollar church. You know it’s not reasonable, it’s not sensible and it doesn’t show seriousness because you don’t have complete knowledge of what you’re talking about.”
Brookins countered, “I don’t know now how we’re gonna do it, but I’m telling you, we’re gonna do it.”
Some members of FAME were very uncomfortable and felt that he (H.H.) was moving too fast. He had a high profile and they seemed to have preferred a “quiet” pastor. Brookins, however, was determined to build a prestigious edifice and his first task was to purchase the land. On Sundays, he started collecting an extra offering for the building fund. He said, “Members would give a dollar here, fifty cents there and so on and so forth. It got so dark I didn’t know what to do. Black folks with money didn’t give nothing; they didn’t give money like they give money now.” He then continued, “After I found the lot, I called a meeting and told the members that I had found a location. That’s when things really got started; the church people put the word out that I had selected a location but had no money. More than that, they said if I tried to build the church on a hill, it would fall off.”
Brookins’ plan was to sell the existing church and buy the land he had located. It turned out, however, that selling the existing church could not even produce enough money to buy the land. Brookins then received another check from Factor for $200,000 and Factor told him, “Now go and build the youth center; buy the land in Watts. And after you build the youth center, then you build the church.” While all this was taking place, Brookins became fodder for the gossip-mongers. According to him, the woman at the Herald Dispatch (a now defunct L.A. newspaper) would write about him every week–not in terms of endearment either–and when she got through with him, she jumped on Factor, focusing on the fact that he was White and Jewish.
“When I located the land,” Brookins said, “I involved two or three Black brothers who were in real estate; I put up the money to pay for it. They took the money and ran. They stole the money, literally stole it from a double escrow. So I had to go back to Factor. I did not tell the church nothing about what had happened.”
Not too long after that, Factor called Brookins and said, “I’m going to New York; I’d be gone for three weeks. When I come back I want you to have all of your people in church that Sunday, and I am going to give you $250,000 to get the church started. I want you to get that church built.” The Sunday after he returned from New York, Factor went to church at FAME. He spoke to the congregation and presented Brookins with a check for $250,000.
With about $400,000 in the bank as leverage, Brookins borrowed the rest of the money to get the project going. Now he had the land and the money intact, it was time to get his team together. He selected the well-known Black architect, Paul R. Williams, a member of FAME whose resume included some landmark structures in the Southern California area. Williams’ fees were $85,000; however, he did most of the work as a contribution to the church and accepted only $10,000 actual cash. There was no Black contractor available to handle such a project so Brookins and Williams hired the best one they found. From ground breaking to occupancy took a little less than a year. From the idea (the announcements, getting the money, acquiring the land, etc.) to its fulfillment, took about three years.
When the church was finally built, Brookins led the congregation in a parade from the old church to the new location where FAME still stands in all of its majesty. The grand marshal of the parade was the famous actor, Tony Curtis, and also included John Factor and all the big-named folks in L. A.
While he was occupied with building, Brookins was never far away from the political scene. L. A. city council now had two city Black councilmen: Tom Bradley and Gilbert Lindsay, and Brookins was positioning Bradley to run for mayor of Los Angeles. Bradley’s first run was unsuccessful. He told Bradley, “You’ve just been delayed, not defeated.” Meanwhile Brookins sphere of political influence was becoming bigger and wider as his counsel and advice were being sought by Black and non-Black candidates running for various elected offices. His status as a “kingmaker” was confirmed.
In 1972, he engaged in a little politicking for himself at the AME General Conference. He ran for bishop and became the 91st AME bishop. He was now the Rt. Reverend Bishop H. Hartford Brookins. His first assignment was the 17th District that encompassed five African countries where he was a key person in the Liberation movements of Zambia, Rhodesia, Malawi, Tanzania and Zaire. He built the people hundreds of homes and helped mediate many of the regions social issues and problems.
One of the African countries, Rhodesia, is the present day Zimbabwe. He landed in the midst of the country’s struggle for independence. And because of his past activities, it was natural for him to get involved. He identified with the Black Freedom Fighters, and donated money and material assistance to the struggle. He was very outspoken and he did so, forcefully and relentlessly against the racist government. After one such speech, before a crowd of about 15,000 in Salisbury, he was escorted by armed guards to his hotel where he was ordered to stay until he could be escorted out of the country. According to the Bishop, “I didn’t sleep at all that night; I kept on all my clothes. At 6 o’clock the next morning, I was ready.” They escorted him to the border where he crossed into Zambia, to a friendly president, Kenneth Kaunda.
While in Africa, Brookins kept in touch with politics in L.A. He was the co-chair of Bradley’s run for mayor and with his guidance, Tom Bradley became the first Black Mayor of Los Angeles in 1973, a great moment in U.S. history.
Bill Elkins, Bradley’s longtime, loyal assistant once wrote, “Bishop Brookins was the most forceful leader to elect Mayor Tom Bradley to the Los Angeles City Council in 1963 and Mayor in 1973.
After Bradley became mayor, his council seat went to another Black councilman, David Cunningham Jr. At that time, there was a lot of political movement emanating from the Brookins’ school of politics–names like Maxine Waters, Diane Watson, Nate Holden, Bob Farrell, Jerry Brown–and the list goes on.
In 1977, he founded Brookins Community AME Church in Los Angeles and appointed Rev. T. Larry Kirkland who remained there until he became bishop. Then Bishop Brookins appointed Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray to the FAME Church in Los Angeles; the one he had built. In Rev. Murray, Brookins said that he had made the perfect choice, for even though Rev. Murray eventually installed those magnificent stained glass windows, it was Brookins who gave him the building to work with. After Brookins retired, Murray gave this glowing tribute about him, “Bishop H.H. Brookins was a pioneer in the civil rights movement and continues to present wonderful enlightenment for equality.”
He made quality and lasting appointments, such as Rev. C. Garnett Henning to St. Paul AME church. Henning became a bishop and is now retired. He placed Rev. Frank Reid at Ward AME and then to Bethel AME in Baltimore, Maryland. He helped Rev. Vashti McKenzie to become the first woman bishop in AME history. He established “Brookins” AME churches in Oakland, California; Seabrook, Maryland in addition to L. A.
He developed economic programs including the California South L.A. Development Corporation, the Economic Development Fund of the 5th District, and the People’s Trust Fund, just to name a few, and he raised well over $100,000 to help shrink the deficit of AME Shorter College.
While in the 12th District, he got acquainted with Bill Clinton, who was about to become governor of Arkansas, and a future president. Brookins would eventually go on to organize the African American Clergy for Bill Clinton’s elections and to have the inaugural prayer service for President Clinton held in Washington’s Metropolitan AME Church.
When Rev. Jesse Jackson was making his first historic run for the President of the United States, Brookins was there to mentor and guide him throughout the campaign. He became the chairman of Operation P.U.S.H. and mobilized ministers around the nation for Jackson’s 1984 run for President.
Brookins has served many boards and in many causes: SCLC, Transafrica, Department of International Religious and Civic Affairs, the Brotherhood Crusade and the advisory board of the L.A. Focus. He spoke at the Million Man March and has been tireless in his efforts to foment strong inter-faith dialogue.
In one of the darkest moments of his career, he was lambasted by angry ministers who tried to force him to step down from his 2nd district post in Washington D.C. However, he weathered the storm and was re-assigned to the 13th district where he came to know then vice president, Al Gore, Jr., whom he invited to the 46th AME General Conference in 2000. When he publicly supported Gore for president, H.H. also said that it was an individual endorsement because church policy did not permit him to endorse political candidates. He was that kind of person–fair, honest and plain-speaking. He retired from the active ministry in 2004, but always remained accessible to those who sought his counsel.
Bishop Brookins was a devoted family man, married to Rosalynn Kyle Brookins. They have a teenage son, Wellington and he also has another son, Steven Brookins, a real estate developer, who lives in Nevada. He has a daughter, Rev. Francine Brookins, an attorney in Oakland, California. Mrs. Brookins followed in her husband’s footsteps and is actively involved in the church.
Funeral arrangements for Bishop Hamel Hartford Brookins, who died May 22, 2012, at 12:00 pm, are finalized.
The services for Bishop Hamel Hartford Brookins will be as follows:
PRIVATE FAMILY SERVICE
Wednesday, May 30, 2012, 6:00 PM -7:00 PM
The Allen House Chapel
2249 South Harvard Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90018
Thursday, May 31, 2012, 10:00 AM – 7:00PM
The Allen House Chapel
2249 South Harvard Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90018
The Public is invited to pay final respects to Bishop H. Hartford Brookins as he lies in
repose at The Allen House Chapel of First AME Church of Los Angeles. Bishop Brookins
Visitation will end at 7:00 PM.
THE CELEBRATION OF LIFE
Friday, June 1, 2012, 11:00 AM
First AME Church of Los Angeles
2270 South Harvard Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90018
T: (323) 730-7750
* Final Public Viewing from 9:00 AM – 10:45 AM prior to service *The public is invited to
attend the Celebration of Life Service
Inglewood Park Cemetery
720 East Florence Avenue
Inglewood, California 90301
* Immediately following Celebration of Life
HILTON LOS ANGELES AIRPORT
5711 West Century Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90045
T: (310) 410-4000
BOOKING CODE: HGC at the rate of $109.00.
Contact Hilton Reservations 1-800-445-8667
GROUND TRANSPORTATION FOR BISHOPS OF THE AME CHURCH
Please send Ground Transportation emailed to
firstname.lastname@example.org by Tuesday, May 29, 2012.
The Reverend Rosalynn Kyle Brookins and Family
3210 West Adams Boulevard, #304
Los Angeles, California 90018
In lieu of flowers kindly make contributions to the Education Fund of Bishop H.
Hartford Brookins, youngest child, Sir-Wellington Hartford Brookins, age 14.
Mail to: Post Office Box 8492 | Los Angeles, California 90008
Condolences may also be made at www.famechurch.org/bishop-brookins
SERVICES ENTRUSTED TO:
Angelus Funeral Home
3875 Crenshaw Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90008