Sophia Brooks’ work continues with scholarship, return to TV

Sophia Brooks in the Christman Room at Stambaugh Auditorium in February 2011. Electronic image by Joan Yanchick for Metro Monthly.

By NATALIE LARICCIA | Special to the METRO MONTHLY

• Editor’s note: Sophia Brooks joins season two of Metro Monthly’s “Homeplate” with a segment titled “Expressions.” It debuts in April.

From the minute you meet Sophia Brooks, you feel an instant magnetism. Packed tight within her diminutive frame, her bubbly, warm personality envelops you and her bright smile lights up the room.

Although you may have just met her, you feel like you’ve known her for years. You want to sit down with a cup of coffee and spend an entire afternoon hearing stories about her life and the rich history and contribution that she has created for her herself and the Mahoning Valley.

And, maybe that’s because this 77-year-old local legend and internationally-known vocalist has such a vast career and has made such a tremendous impact – even though she’s a bit shy to share her stories and would rather ask you questions about your life.

This petite powerhouse and Youngstown native began singing and tap dancing at the tender age of seven, and it wasn’t long before she was recognized for her talent.
“People would say to me, ‘Where did you get a voice like that,’ and I would just say, ‘Well, I was born with this voice,’” Brooks said.

The 1951 graduate of South High School began voice lessons at the age of 15 and landed a singing role in a spring review show at South High. And, from there, her soprano soloist career began to snowball. She furthered her musical studies at Youngstown State University’s Dana School of Music and the Cleveland Institute of Music.

She also helped pave the way as a pioneer in the female, African-American community. She was the first African-American paid professional soloist, performing at area churches, including First Presbyterian Church, St. John’s Episcopal Church and First Christian Church of Youngstown. She was also a soloist with the Youngstown Symphony Choir under the direction of the late John Krueger and Franz Bibo.

Brooks’ voice has guided her throughout the United States and Europe. In the early 1950s, shortly after she graduated high school, she joined the internationally-renowned African-American choir Wings Over Jordan. She traveled the globe, serving as a soloist and assistant director for nearly three years before returning to Youngstown.

In 1957, she married her husband, Alton P. Brooks, who served as a masseur for 55 years at the Youngstown YMCA. Alton passed away in 2007. They had three children, Darrolyn Bell of Rochester, Pa.; Cherol Brooks of Youngstown; and Alton Brooks Jr. of Tampa, Fla.

Sophia’s career transcended into other creative avenues, including theater and television. She has performed in plays at the Youngstown Playhouse, including “Pearlie” and “The Wiz.” She was also a member of the Youngstown Playhouse’s Children’s Theater, including productions of “Jack and The Beanstalk.”

She was also one of the first local females to attain a paid media position, serving for 14 years as community-affairs director for WKBN TV-27 in Youngstown, where she hosted a regular program called “Expressions.”

Brooks is also a community ambassador, serving with the Needles’ Eye Christian Counseling and Tutorial Ministry. She was recognized by The Junior League and the Junior Civic League locally in the “Highlights in Black” exhibit, displayed at the Butler Institute of American Art.

Madonna Chism Pinkard, director of community relations for WFMJ/WBCB Television Inc., said Brooks was a role model and a major influence on her life and career.

“I wanted to be Sophia Brooks. When I was in college, I was just so enamored with this woman. She was just so involved with this community. I said, that is exactly what I wanted to do,” she said.

Chism Pinkard, also a Youngstown native and active community volunteer, said she’s not surprised her career and life have taken a similar course to Brooks – she literally serves the same position that Brooks once worked at WKBN – just at different local television station.

“When someone has the presence of Sophia Brooks you want to get to know that person. You want to get to know what makes that person tick. You want to be around them,” Chism Pinkard said.

Dr. Bryan DePoy, dean of the College of Fine and Performing Arts at Youngstown State University, said he was amazed by Brooks’ fall 2010 performance of “An Evening of 19th Century Negro Spirituals” in YSU’s Bliss Hall.

“I’ve always been amazed at her commitment to and proponent of the rich culture In Youngstown. To see her perform brings forth many emotions, but it’s an overriding sense of optimism that one immediately notices. . . . Ms. Brooks should be considered among the most prominent points of pride in the community,” DePoy said.

Looking back at her career, Brooks says she feels blessed and honored. She’s also optimistic about the future of the Mahoning Valley and looking forward to continuing to give back to the community and helping to inspire today’s youth and women to reach their dreams.

She’ll soon be featured as a host on a segment called “Expressions” on the second season of Metro Monthly’s “Homeplate” television program, and she recently initiated a scholarship fund in the name of her and her husband for African-American students studying at the Dana School of Music.

“I feel like I have something to offer to women, not just to African-American women, but women. Because it’s still hard sometimes (to be a woman) . . . God gives you gifts to do things and just try to do the best that you can, and God has blessed me, and I thank God for taking care of me,” she said.

© 2011 The Metro Monthly. All rights reserved.
Editor’s note: The video below captures Sophia Brooks and Sean Jones in performance at Youngstown State University in 2010.

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