Every week, when Karolina Castro, ’16, volunteered at an after-school program in Jackson Ward, she would walk past a picture of Lucy Goode Brooks. By most standards, Castro should never have known the story of the woman behind the image. A former slave, a woman, an African-American—these identities often mark a lack of privilege that leads to a person’s narrative being lost as time moves on.
Intersectionality—a concept Castro studied in an introductory Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies class—explains this phenomenon. According to instructor Julianne Guillard, intersectionality describes how personal identities such as race, gender, class, ability, orientation, and national origin affect political access in society and a person’s lasting presence in history.
To explore how this idea plays out in modern and historical contexts, Guillard asked students in the class to choose a subject from the Library of Virginia’s Women in History project and research her story. Because of the influence of intersectionality, these stories often aren’t widely disseminated, even though the women have changed history locally and, in some cases, nationally.
As a result, when Castro partnered with Taneka Lewis, ’16, and choose to study Brooks, they thought they’d be writing a paper using just the information the library already had. As they kept digging, however, they found that Brooks’ story was anything but lost.
“She was a former slave’s daughter, so we thought there wouldn’t be much about her,” Lewis says. “But it was kind of the opposite. We just found information on top of information.”
As it turns out, when Brooks worked indoors she overheard her slave master’s children being tutored and learned to read along with them. Brooks and her three youngest children were sold in 1858 to Daniel Van Groning, who allowed her husband, Albert Brooks, to pay him in installments for their freedom. After emancipation in 1865, former slaves arrived in Richmond in search of family members and Brooks saw many children separated from their parents. In response, she founded the Friends’ Asylum for Colored Orphans in 1872 (the site was later rebuilt to house the after-school program where Castro worked). Her literacy was an advantage in communicating with friends and local leaders to build the orphanage—and may have ensured her story was preserved in local history.
“It’s one thing to just talk about somebody’s life,” Castro says. “It’s another thing to actually see how their life and their identity is affected by how society perceives them, and how they overcome that.”
The assignment was not only a way for Guillard to give context to intersectionality; it also furthers the library’s agenda of preserving, and sometimes adding to, the women’s stories for future generations.
“It shows how privilege—or a lack thereof—affects your historical imprint,” Guillard says. “Privilege is a tricky thing. Lucy Goode Brooks was—obviously—oppressed because of her enslavement. And yet, it was her education that enabled her to work for, gain, and keep her freedom. Researching someone like Brooks, seeing her influence on the city, and then returning to a University classroom that Brooks could only dream of attending 150 years ago helps cement students’ understanding of, and impetus for enacting, social justice.”