Minority business pioneer Pauline Brooks dies at 80 Her boutique at Mondawmin Mall opened in 1967

April 25, 1996|By Robert C. Hilson Jr. | Robert C. Hilson Jr.,STAFF WRITER

On the family room wall of Pauline Brooks' Northwest Baltimore home -- nearly lost among numerous other awards and tributes -- hangs a small plaque. But the honor is one she most adored.

"The First Negro Businesswoman To Develop A Boutique In A Major Shopping Center," reads the plaque, given in February 1968 by the Baltimore office of the Council for Equal Business Opportunities (CEBO) shortly after Ms. Brooks opened her shop in the Mondawmin Mall.

"She was proud of that," said her daughter, Paula Brooks-Leftwich. "It took a lot of nerve to do what she did."

Mrs. Brooks, who died Saturday at 80 of heart failure, was indeed full of nerve. But she was also full of elegance, persistence, class and a certain ladylike business savvy.

At a time when department stores didn't always allow blacks to try on clothes before purchase, and shops in black communities generally sold garments of considerably lesser quality, Pauline Brooks opened a small dress shop on the upper level of Mondawmin Mall that offered fashionable, quality clothing for black women.

She selected each of her dresses and ensembles at some of the better New York garment houses.

"Pauline Brooks in Mondawmin was the place for black women to find something chic that you knew no one else would be wearing," said Cynthia Woodyear, a longtime customer. "Not only did her place serve as a necessity for black women, but she made you feel good there.

"She was a trendsetter for a lot of other boutiques that cater to blacks these days, as well as for blacks."

Born Pauline Bartz in Staunton, Va., she moved to Baltimore when she was 5. Her four siblings were born in Virginia because their mother firmly believed that "you wouldn't amount to anything if you weren't born in Virginia," Ms. Brooks-Leftwich said.

Mrs. Brooks graduated from Frederick Douglass High School in 1933 and worked domestic jobs for several years before taking business courses at the former Cortez Peters Business School in Baltimore in the early 1940s.

She married W. Bernard Brooks in 1936. He died in 1955. In 1970, she married Arthur Amis, who also died. Since 1967, Mrs. Brooks had lived in the Ashburton community of Northwest Baltimore.

In 1952, she opened her first retail endeavor -- a corset shop in the basement of a string of businesses in the 2100 block of W. North Ave.

"There wasn't a lot of money to give blacks to open [a] business, so you had to save up, and she did," Ms. Brooks-Leftwich said. "She was successful there. When she first opened, she went to New York and bought a line of clothing, came back and sold out and went back to buy more."

She sold women's wear from the North Avenue location until 1967, when she moved to Mondawmin Mall in West Baltimore. The move was done reluctantly.

"She didn't want to take on additional overhead," said Samuel T. Daniels, a good friend and, at the time, head of the Baltimore office of the CEBO, which was created to assist minority business owners. Mrs. Brooks was Baltimore CEBO's first client.

"We prevailed on her that it would increase the volume of her business and inspire others. She was a pacesetter," Mr. Daniels said. "She possessed a great deal of integrity."

Fred O'Neal, who has owned Mondawmin Photo in the mall since 1957, said a quality clientele shopped at Mrs. Brooks' boutique.

"She catered to the more affluent black woman. It was a quality type of store," Mr. O'Neal said, adding, "She was an eloquent lady. She was a lady's lady. She was like a school principal, because when she spoke, you listened."

While at Mondawmin, she formed a modeling troupe -- called the Fashionable Ones -- that traveled throughout the East Coast wearing fashions sold by Mrs. Brooks.

Roslyn Smith, who modeled for Mrs. Brooks from 1969 to 1981, said Mrs. Brooks hired black models mostly because they were shunned by white modeling agencies. "It was a great start for black models, because at that time there were no black models," Ms. Smith said.

The Fashionable Ones did a show once at a Washington hotel, and Ms. Smith recalls not wanting to wear some of the clothes.

"She told me, 'Remember, it's not for you, but for the audience. Somebody out there might like it,' " Ms. Smith said.

Mrs. Brooks was also a pioneer in fashions for large women.

"She believed that people dictated fashion, not the other way around," said Carla Lyles, a regular customer for more than 20 years.

"She thought that good clothes were not just for the skinny people on the street. Her eyes for fashion were her best asset. That quality died with her."

Services are scheduled for noon today at Douglas Memorial Community Church, 1325 Madison Ave.

In addition to Ms. Brooks-Leftwich, Mrs. Brooks is survived by a sister, Geneva France of Baltimore; and two granddaughters.

Pub Date: 4/25/96

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