Julia Britton Hooks, an African American clubwoman known as the “Angel of Beale Street,” was born free in 1852 in Frankfort, Kentucky. Her parents, Henry Britton, a carpenter, and Laura Marshall Britton, encouraged her training in classical music. In 1869 this musical prodigy enrolled in Berea College in an interracial program that allowed her to study music and instruct white students in piano. In 1872 Julia Britton moved to Greenville, Mississippi, to teach school. She married Sam Wertles; he died in the 1873 yellow fever epidemic. She participated in the successful campaign of Blanche K. Bruce, one of the first blacks to serve in the U.S. Senate. In 1876 Julia Britton Wertles moved to Memphis to teach and married Charles Hooks.
Julia Hooks became a leader in African American cultural and educational affairs. In 1883 she and Anna Church, the wife of Robert Church Sr., launched the Liszt-Mullard Club to promote classical music and raise money for scholarships for promising black musicians. She founded the Hooks School of Music, whose students included W. C. Handy, Sidney Woodward, and Nell Hunter. Dissatisfied with the poor quality of public education for Memphis black children, she opened the Hooks Cottage School (kindergarten and elementary education) in 1892.
Hooks worked to relieve the suffering of impoverished black Memphians. In 1891 she became a charter member of two institutions: the Colored Old Folks Home (later Hooks-Edwards Rest Home) and the Orphan Home Club. These institutions provided shelter for elderly black women and orphans. In 1902 Memphis established a juvenile court for African American offenders; Julia and Charles Hooks supervised the detention home, which was next door to their own home. In 1917 Charles Hooks was killed by an escaping juvenile, but Julia Hooks continued to provide counseling and guidance to the juvenile facility.
Hooks deplored the racial inequality and Jim Crow segregation of her day and championed personal character building as well as government protection for embattled black citizens. In March 1881 she was escorted from a Memphis theater, arrested, and fined five dollars for refusing to move from the white section to the “colored balcony.” She was widely quoted on the subject of character building, and her essay “The Duty of the Hour” was published in the 1895 edition of the African American Encyclopedia. A charter member of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP, Hooks was the grandmother of the national director of the organization, Benjamin J. Hooks. She died in 1942, at age ninety.
“Hooks, Julia Britton,” in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, ed. Darlene Clark Hine, Elsa Barkley Brown, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn (1993); Selma Lewis and Marjean G. Kremer, The Angel of Beale Street: A Biography of Julia Ann Hooks (1986)