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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Grace Allen
Image courtesy of Memphis and Shelby County Room at Memphis Public Library.
Julia Britton Hooks was a very talented musician and teacher. In her lifetime, she was dedicated to teaching music to people of all ages in Memphis, Tennessee. They called her “The Angel of Beale Street.” Julia inspired and taught some of the most famous Black musicians of the early 1900s including W.C. Handy, later known as the Father of the Blues. But Julia Britton Hooks was more than a famous musician. She was also a civil rights activist and humanitarian.
Record of “Memphis Blues” by W.C. Handy, a student of Julia Britton Hooks.
Julia was born to free Black parents before the end of slavery in 1852. Her family was very successful. Her mother was a famous musician. Her sister, Mary E. Britton, was the first African American female doctor in Kentucky. Julia showed a lot of talent from a young age. She was called a musical prodigy. She started performing for audiences at the age of 5!
When Julia grew up, she attended Berea College in Kentucky. She was one of the college’s first Black female students. Once she graduated, she took a job as the first Black teacher at Berea. Eventually, she settled in Memphis and became an important figure in the community. Though she was a well-known music teacher, she wanted to do more.
Berea College in 1875.
After the Civil War, enslaved people were legally freed by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Even though they were free, that didn’t mean they were treated equally. White lawmakers started passing segregation laws. These laws were used to keep Black people separate from white people. This was a system designed to make sure Black people weren’t treated equally. White schools and public services like libraries were given more resources. Black schools and services were often ignored.
Segregation signs in the Tennessee State Museum’s Collection.
Julia knew segregation was unfair. In 1881, Julia attended a show at a Memphis theatre. Because of the color of her skin, she was supposed to sit in the balcony. Julia chose to sit in the whites only section and refused to move. She was arrested and fined 5 dollars. She did this to protest segregation. Julia continued to fight segregation and champion her community. She joined the Memphis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored* People (NAACP) as one of its first members.
This is a book by Julia’s grandson who was the Executive Director of the NAACP years later.
Julia fought for fairness and reform for many different groups in her city. At the time, Black young adults and children who broke the law were put into adult prisons. This was because Black facilities were not given enough resources. Julia and her husband Charles worked to create a better option. They supervised a juvenile detention home for Black young adults. Sadly, Charles was killed by someone trying to escape the detention home. After this, Julia continued to work with the children at the detention home. She believed it was an important cause, and she still had much to give.
Julia knew inequality wasn’t only based on the color of someone’s skin. She also worked as a suffragist. She believed women should have equal rights too, including the right to vote. She participated in the woman’s suffrage movement and founded the Women’s Improvement Club with her sister in Lexington, Kentucky.
Black women were often excluded from white woman’s clubs and would create their own woman’s clubs.
Activism was important to Julia, but so was making sure people had access to education and a safe home. She founded not just one, but two schools! They were called The Hooks School of Music and The Hooks Cottage School. Helping her community didn’t end with education. She also sponsored the Colored* Old Folks Home to shelter elderly Black women and the Orphan Home Club for children.
Throughout her life, Julia Britton Hooks remained devoted to helping her community. She saw that seeking change was just as important as serving her community. She gave the gift of music to many of her students, but her legacy as an activist and humanitarian is just as important.
*It is important for students to remember that while these are the historical names of these institutions/organizations, it is not appropriate to use this term outside of its historical context.
Humanitarian – A person who helps other people
Prodigy – A person who is very talented at a specific thing, at a very young age
Segregation – To set apart or divide groups of people. For example: segregating people based on the color of their skin.
Protest – An act or event to show disapproval of something. For example: Julia Britton Hooks protested to show disapproval of segregation.
Suffragist – Someone who supports woman’s right to vote.
Which College did Julia work at as the first Black teacher on staff?
How much was Julia fined for protesting at a theatre in Memphis?
Why do you think Julia continued fighting for reform even after her husband died?
Why do you think providing others with education opportunities was so important to Julia?
Julia Britton Hooks was a talented musician. Music can help you remember details when you pair it with a familiar tune. Try this musical memory technique. Using your favorite song, see if you can come up with some simple lyrics about her life to go with it.
To the tune of ABC
Julia Hooks was really cool, stood up to injustice in spite of the rules
She knew segregation meant inequality, she refused to move to protest the policy
5.09 Analyze the major goals, struggles, and achievements of the Progressive Era, including: Prohibition (18th Amendment), women’s suffrage (19th Amendment), and the lack of child labor laws.
5.43 Explain the impact of the Tennessee Constitutional Convention of 1870, including: poll taxes, segregation, and funds for public education. (T.C.A. § 49-6-1028)
Grace Allen is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.