She called herself “the Silver Fox.”
And she was.
When her hair started turning gray in her 30s, long before it should have, she kept it. Didn’t dye it black to maintain the appearance of an elusive youth, but wore the gray like a crown — piled in silky curls, done in waves or covered by hats. She had an extensive collection of hats, so large that she once had a room dedicated to them. In her generation, a hat was a thing of pride. Proper ladies wore hats and gloves and often a string of pearls, so that when they presented themselves socially, they would appear “finished.”
When you look a certain way, you command a certain presence, Mildred J. Brooks used to say. People respect that.
“She was elegant,” says her longtime friend Joan Lewis. “She would say to me, ‘I’m a snazzy dresser. I don’t like going out looking funny.’ ”
Brooks was born Mildred Jenkins in Boston on June 1, 1915. Her mother and father soon moved to Brooklyn, where her mother was a housewife and her father worked as a chauffeur for a man who worked for Standard Oil. That was a big job then for a black man, so Mildred grew up among New York’s black elite and its fashionable women.
“She was a person who would by her looks turn heads when she was younger,” said her nephew Donald Jenkins. “She was actually a fair-skinned person who had blond hair. She could have passed for white but chose not to.”
In Brooklyn, Brooks graduated from Girls High School,also attended by actress Lena Horne. After high school graduation, Brooks went to Howard University, where she studied home economics and earned a degree in nutrition. After graduating, she moved to St. Louis, where she worked as a teacher and as chief dietitian at the Phillips Hospital. She returned to Washington 17 years later to work for the D.C. government. Brooks, who married and divorced in her 20s and never had children, was chief dietitian at the DC Village family shelter, special assistant to the director of public welfare and community nutritionist for the Surplus Food Program. She was a past president of the D.C. Mayor’s Commission on Food, Nutrition and Health.
At the D.C. Department of Welfare and the D.C. Department of Human Services, she became what they called a “home economist,” teaching families in the community the importance of preparing balanced meals.
She won awards across the city for her work with nutrition. She helped the city start its food bank and the farmers market at RFK Stadium. She became the first black president of the D.C. Dietetic Association and president of the D.C. Home Economics Association.
As she made her way throughout the city, Brooks always dressed impeccably.
“She felt ladies should look a certain way,” Lewis said. “She went to Howard University. At historically black colleges, you were taught to dress up. They have a tendency to make you feel like you should be a lady all the time. You wear the hats and gloves. If you interview for a job, you put on your hat and gloves. That was the thing with us so-called home economics majors. You had to be dressed. At that time, people wore dresses and suits.”
It bothered Brooks when people started dressing more casually.
“When they started dress-down Friday, she would say, ‘Holy cow,’ ” Lewis recalled, “ ‘That doesn’t look nice!’ When she went to do demonstrations, she would say, ‘You don’t have to look like the children.’ ”
Her passion for style was strong, and so was her personality. “She was a very feisty lady,” her nephew Steve Jenkins said. “She didn’t take much from anybody.” But even when stirred up, Brooks remained classy and ladylike.
Steve Jenkins recalled visiting his aunt one afternoon in her Southwest apartment. They sat there, eating the dinner he had brought, surrounded by big windows, and began talking about piano. Brooks rose and played a church song for him. “I was truly impressed. She was an accomplished pianist.”
She belonged to Calvary Episcopal, then to Shiloh Baptist Church, where she belonged to the Golden Deed Circle, one of the church’s member organizations, and played the piano.
In her later years, one of her neighbors would give her a one-way ride to church. “She would come to Shiloh and have no way to get home,” said Karlton Hart, leader of the Golden Deed Circle. “She would get there and she would sit in the sanctuary until the sanctuary cleared.”
Doris Williams Berry would often see Brooks sitting there in her hat in an emptied pew, the sunlight streaming through the stained-glass windows. Berry would ask her if she had a ride. And Brooks would answer no. Berry would give her a ride. And in return Brooks gave Berry a couple of hats. “One was red, and the other was off-white,” Berry said. “They were very pretty hats. Dress hats. ... She had lovely hair. No reason to wear hats. But she was pretty stylish when she was younger. She always wanted to look good.”
Brooks died March 30 at age 95. Until recently, her answering machine still contained her greeting. A soft, refined voice: “You have reached” the number. “Please leave a message for the Silver Fox.”
DeNeen Brown is a Washington Post staff writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.