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Bridging the Divide: My Life

Bridging the Divide: My Life

by Edward Brooke

President Lyndon Johnson never understood it. Neither did President Richard Nixon. How could a black man, a Republican no less, be elected to the United States Senate from liberal, Democratic Massachusetts-a state with an African American population of only 2 percent?

The mystery of Senator Edward Brooke's meteoric rise from Boston lawyer to Massachusetts


President Lyndon Johnson never understood it. Neither did President Richard Nixon. How could a black man, a Republican no less, be elected to the United States Senate from liberal, Democratic Massachusetts-a state with an African American population of only 2 percent?

The mystery of Senator Edward Brooke's meteoric rise from Boston lawyer to Massachusetts attorney general to the first popularly elected African American U.S. senator with some of the highest favorable ratings of any Massachusetts politician confounded many of the best political minds of the day. After winning a name for himself as the first black man to be elected a state's attorney general, as a crime fighter, and as the organizer of the Boston Strangler Task Force, this articulate and charismatic man burst on the national scene in 1966 when he ran for the Senate.

In two terms in the Senate during some of the most racially tormented years of the twentieth century, Brooke, through tact, personality, charm, and determination, became a highly regarded member of "the most exclusive club in the world." The only African American senator ever to be elected to a second term, Brooke established a reputation for independent thinking and challenged the powerbrokers and presidents of the day in defense of the poor and disenfranchised.

In this autobiography, Brooke details the challenges that confronted African American men of his generation and reveals his desire to be measured not as a black man in a white society but as an individual in a multiracial society. Chided by some in the white community as being "too black to be white" and in the black community as "too white to be black," Brooke sought only to represent the people of Massachusetts and the national interest.

His story encompasses the turbulent post-World War II years, from the gains of the civil rights movement, through the riotous 1960s, to the dark days of Watergate, with stories of his relationships with the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, and future senator Hillary Clinton. Brooke also speaks candidly of his personal struggles, including his bitter divorce from his first wife and, most recently, his fight against cancer.

A dramatic, compelling, and inspirational account, Brooke's life story demonstrates the triumph of the human spirit, offering lessons about politics, life, reconciliation, and love.

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Rutgers University Press
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Read an Excerpt

Bridging the Divide

My Life
By Edward W. Brooke

Rutgers University Press

Copyright © 2007 Edward W. Brooke
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8135-3905-8

Chapter One

Inside the


For young people growing up in America today, stories of my youth will seem almost incomprehensible. It will require the suspension of their sense of reality to picture a time when large areas of Washington, D.C., were truly safe, when families stayed together, neighbors helped one another, students were encouraged to study, and there were no drugs or drive-by shootings. But I grew up in such a time, and these are my recollections. I grew up black in the segregated South, yet I never knew the poverty or overt racial discrimination that might suggest. My hometown was Washington, D.C., where my father was a government lawyer. I attended good schools and lived in a neighborhood that was attractive and crime-free. My life was dramatically different from that of a young black man in the Deep South. The segregation in Washington was no less real, but it was more subtle and, in my experience, not violent. I was raised in a cocoon, surrounded by other middle-class Negro Americans, rarely dealing with whites, accepting the written and unwritten laws that declared much of my hometown off-limits to me. I knew that some of my ancestors had come to America in chains, and I knew that lynching and race riots still occurred, but the blunt realities of racism did not really penetrate my life until I went off to serve in World War II.

My parents, Edward William Brooke Jr. and Helen Seldon Brooke, were very different people. I loved them both deeply, but I was more like my outgoing mother than my reserved, brooding father. They had two daughters before they had me: Helene, then Edwina. They expected their second child to be their last and hoped for a boy, but of course they adored the little girl who arrived instead. When the girls were six and three, Edwina developed an upset stomach. A doctor prescribed the wrong medicine, and she died of blood poisoning. The doctor's behavior, in my opinion, amounted to criminal negligence, but there was no thought of a malpractice suit. My parents were not the sort of people to make trouble. They rarely spoke of this tragedy; I do not even know if the doctor was black or white or whether it mattered. Edwina's death plunged my mother into a severe depression. She later told me that without my father's love and support, she might have died. Her doctor urged her to have another child to combat her depression, and my mother prayed that she could. My birth, at our rented home on October 26, 1919, was literally the answer to my mother's prayers. She named me Edward W. Brooke III, as much for my dead sister Edwina as for my father.

Some of my ancestors on my father's side were slaves on farms around Falmouth and Fredericksburg, Virginia. As a child, my grandfather, Edward William Brooke St., had been a slave on the Brooke plantation near Fredericksburg, from which he derived his name. He was a tall, strong man with copper-colored skin, high cheekbones, and straight black hair. His ancestors were African, Cherokee Indian, and English white. He met and married my grandmother, Dolly Jefferson, in Fredericksburg, and my father was born on August 14, 1889. In those days, many ambitious young Negro men in the South were moving up to Washington, D.C. It was still "Mr. Lincoln's town," and Negroes believed there were better jobs and less discrimination there. When my grandfather made that move, he was the first of his tight-knit family to leave Fredericksburg's rich farm country. He found a job as a trainman for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

My mother, Helen Seldon, was born on April 19, 1892, on a farm outside Petersburg, Virginia, the ninth of ten children. Her mother, Eliza Seldon, died when she was three, and my mother had no memory either of her mother or her white father. Her older sister, Addie, and her husband, William Mavritte, took her to Washington and raised her as their own. Uncle William was a bricklayer, a part-time Baptist preacher, and a strict disciplinarian. My outgoing, fun-loving mother grew up in a family where no one was permitted to drink, smoke, dance, or play cards. She was only fifteen when my father came courting. He was eighteen, a neat, quiet, rather formal young man. When he came to call, Uncle William would never leave the room, and after a brief visit he would escort the young man to the door. After a year the young couple married and escaped to Atlantic City for a honeymoon that my mother talked about for the rest of her long life.

My father worked his way through Howard University Law School while supporting his wife and children and with no help from his family. On May 18, 1918, he took the D.C. bar exam. He did not pass it, nor did most of the Negroes who took it with him. He never blamed discrimination, but my mother said that considering his good grades, hard work, and ambition, she had to believe that was the reason. He never took the bar exam again, perhaps because he did not want to expose himself to that cruel rejection a second time.

Racism caused great pain in my father's life. As a boy, he was not protected by a middle-class cocoon the way I was. As a man, working in the Veterans Administration, he encountered segregated facilities, even segregated toilets, for black and white employees. Year after year he was passed over for promotion, as the good jobs with higher pay went to whites. It took him years to reach the exalted position of attorney reviewer, and he never came close to matching his ambitions or his potential. When he retired after fifty years, he was given a Distinguished Service Award, but he left a bitter man. We never discussed his frustrations or why he never took the bar exam a second time. He did not want to burden me with his problems. He suffered in silence.

My father was a Republican, as almost all Negroes were then; they rallied around the party of Lincoln and Emancipation. He blamed the Democrats for segregation and racism. Because residents of the District {Negroes or whites for that matter) could not vote in the District, he never missed a chance to return home to Fredericksburg and vote Republican. Despite his disappointments, he rejected radical political solutions. He would say of Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement: "Back to Africa? Why would I go back when I have never been there? I'm an American and I'm going to stay right here." He was a good listener and a wise counselor, imparting some of his favorite aphorisms to me, such as "the quality of a man's judgment is only as good as the quality of his information." I loved him and never had cause to fear him, but we were never as close as my mother and I.

Given all his frustrations, perhaps it is not surprising that my father, like countless other Negro men, sought solace in alcohol. He never went on a binge or missed a day's work. He was never loud or abusive or profane. But he drank too much, night after night. My mother and sister and I left him alone. Perhaps we were all in denial. My father loved his family, but quietly. He took pleasure in my mother's popularity, in her work at church and in the community, and in her many friendships, but he had few close friends of his own and kept his feelings inside.

When I was born, we lived in a rented row house at 1938 Third Street NW, in the LeDroit Park neighborhood. Many of our neighbors owned their homes. Grass was neatly trimmed, the streets were clean, and there were no abandoned homes or deteriorated housing. People left their doors unlocked. We had no fear of crime or the "drive-by shootings" that plague black Washington today. My childhood was a happy one. My mother would take Helene and me on picnics in Washington's long, meandering Rock Creek Park. At Easter we would roll eggs down the hills there. In the summer the park's huge trees provided welcome shade in an era before air conditioning. On unbearably hot nights, Mother would pack blankets, sandwiches, and soft drinks, and we would go down to Hains Point and spend the night beside the Potomac River. For us kids, this was high adventure.

For today's young people it would be insanity. But those days, women did not work outside the home. My mother was always there for us. She was my buddy, my booster, my best friend. She attended every school play and ceremony that Helene and I took part in. She taught me that friendship is an art. When guests came to our house, she lit up with warmth and hospitality, and I learned to do the same. She taught me to thank people and to make them feel special. She was just trying to make me a good, outgoing human being, but her lessons were also useful training for a politician. The thousands of thank-you notes I have written over the years were inspired by her warm and loving personality.

She had an independent, objective mind. If a friend and I got into a scuffle at our house and each began telling his side of the story, she would say to me, "Don't just tell me what he did wrong. Tell me the whole story. Tell me what you did wrong." Then she would sit like a judge and resolve the dispute. At first that bothered me. I thought my mother ought to take my side. But as I came to understand her belief in fair play, it made me proud of her. She taught me the value of honesty and that the world is a complex place with conflicting interests. Most of all, my mother believed in me. She said that if I worked hard, there was nothing I could not do. She told me over and over, "You've got to keep fighting," and her words still ring in my ears.

Advice my mother gave me regarding women has stayed with me all my life, too. Boys then as now often bragged to one another about their sexual conquests. Once my mother overheard one of my friends bragging about having slept with a girl. When my friends left, she called me aside. I could tell she was really upset about something. She told me what she had heard and said that she hated this kind of talk. "If a girl thinks enough of you to give you her body, you should respect her enough not to tell anyone about what you have done." She went on to lecture me, saying "all women should be respected, even prostitutes. Remember, your mother is a woman."

When it came time to start school, young Negroes in Washington were blessed. The District had segregated schools and teaching staffs, but they paid the white and black teachers the same. This meant that teaching was one of the best-paying jobs for Negroes. It also meant that our teachers were often overqualified for their jobs-scholars with advanced degrees, who today would be teaching at great universities, in those days wound up in the black public schools of the District. White colleges would not hire them, and black colleges could not pay them as much as the District did. There were three high schools open to black students in Washington. I attended Dunbar, named for the great Negro poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, which we believed to be the best Negro high school in America and as good as any white high school. Many Dunbar graduates went on to do well at Ivy League colleges, and its graduates have been leaders in many fields.

When I was at Dunbar, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. In our community, doctors were the men who made the most money, earned the most respect, and had the prettiest wives. Most of the young women I knew viewed marrying a doctor as their most important goal, or at least their mothers did. For all the wrong reasons, I focused on premed courses such as chemistry and biology, ignoring the fact that I had no aptitude for them. I made better grades in civics, history, and English. My favorite English teacher, Miss Bertha McNeil, taught me how to write and organize my thoughts-skills that were invaluable in law and politics. My civics teacher, Cyrus Shipley, a Yale graduate, told me I was wasting my time in the sciences and should focus on political science and history, but I shrugged off his good advice.

I was a good but not outstanding student. Much of what I learned I learned outside the classroom. My mother taught me to love opera, the theater, and classical music. If the best theaters in our hometown, the capital of this proud democracy, would not admit us, she did not let that defeat her. She took me to New York to hear Mozart's works at Carnegie Hall and to see Carmen and Cavalleria Rusticana performed by the San Carlo Opera Company. In high school and college, I listened to the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera while I studied. We also took advantage of the great Negro theaters in Washington, including the Lincoln, the Republic, the Booker T and the Howard, which rivaled Harlem's famous Apollo Theater as a showcase for the leading black artists of the day. I grew up listening to Ethel Waters, Lionel Hampton, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong. My parents taught me that racial prejudice is a sin, one that robs the world of great minds and talents. They confronted it and persevered.

My early life centered on our large extended family. I spent many of my summer vacations with my mother's oldest brother, Uncle Henry, and his wife, Aunt Carrie, and their seven children on the Seldon family farm outside Petersburg. The farm had a red barn, cows, four plow horses, two riding horses, two mules, and a little store with a tin roof that sat near the road. There they sold vegetables and flowers they grew and bottles of preserves and honey from the bees they kept. As far as I could see, the family lived entirely off the products of their farm. Those were joyous times, feeding their chickens and pigs, hunting rabbit and possum with Uncle Henry, and attending Sunday school, church, and occasional revival meetings. But the funerals at their country Baptist church were what I remember best. People would come from miles around, often on horseback or mule-drawn wagons, bringing with them a cornucopia of cakes, pies, fried chicken, ham, sweet potatoes, and other delicacies. My "country cousins" and I did not focus on the fact of death, just on the people and the treats. A wedding, a funeral, a barn raising-they all meant good times to us.

As I grew older, I spent very different vacations in Harlem with my mother's younger sister, Aunt Ruth, and her Cuban husband, Uncle Alexander Pompez. My mother and Aunt Ruth never got along; she was a difficult woman, although Uncle Alex loved her dearly. Everyone liked Uncle Alex, who was a funny, good-natured, kind man who for a time controlled the numbers racket in Harlem. (My father liked him despite his occupation.) Sometimes I watched in fascination as Uncle Alex and Aunt Ruth counted thousands of dollars in small bills on their dining room table. If I ran an errand for my uncle, he would sometimes reward me with a twenty-dollar bill, a fortune in those days.

Uncle Alex and Aunt Ruth had a luxurious apartment overlooking Yankee Stadium, and they drove their cream-colored Packard convertible to vacations in exclusive New Jersey resorts. Aunt Ruth had no children of her own and often said she wanted Helene and me to come live with her and Uncle Alex. Failing that, she was happy for us to visit during summer vacations. She would buy expensive dresses for Helene and nice clothes for me, too, and take us to Asbury Park in New Jersey and to New York's famous Coney Island.

Uncle Alex loved sports. He owned the Cuban All Stars baseball team and built a ballpark in the Bronx for them to play in. The All Stars drew big crowds and made him a lot of money. Many of those Cuban and Negro players would have been playing in the major leagues if they had been integrated then. I loved our visits to Harlem. I belatedly learned a lot more about Uncle Alex's life when I read a fascinating article by Daniel Coyle in the December 15, 2003, issue of Sports Illustrated. The story told how Fritz Pollard, a black all-American football star at Brown University in the 1910s and later a star in the National Football League, helped start the New York Brown Bombers after the white NFL owners unofficially banned black players from their league. My Uncle Alex was involved because he owned the stadium where the Bombers played. Coyle has this to say about him:

Pompez was a criminal in the eyes of the police and a crown
prince in the eyes of Harlemites. From his cigar store, the soft-spoken
Cuban ran a numbers bank-a lottery that filled his pockets
to the tune of $8000 a day-which he used to fund his Negro
league baseball team, the New York Cubans. Courtly, suave and
scrupulously honest with his clients, Pompez was beloved in
Harlem for his civic generosity.

All went swimmingly for him until an evening in 1931 when
the Bronx-based gangster Arthur Flegenheimer, better known as
Dutch Schultz, employed his .45 revolver to persuade Pompez
to hand over control of the numbers game. Needing another
source of income, Pompez turned to sports enterprises. In 1935
he leased a vacant field at Dyckman Oval from the city and transformed
it into one of the finest sports palaces in Manhattan.


Excerpted from Bridging the Divide by Edward W. Brooke Copyright © 2007 by Edward W. Brooke. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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