Pink Palace visitors from 1948 to 1975 were fond of visiting the Berry B. Brooks African Hall. Brooks was a respected Memphian with a reputation as a huntsman, naturalist and conservationist. He was also a civic leader who was generous with his time, finances and big game trophies.
Brooks was born in Senatobia, Mississippi, in 1902 and moved to Memphis when he was 12. He attended Washington and Lee University and then worked as a clerk before starting his own cotton company in 1929. During his 53 years in the cotton business, Brooks served as king of the Cotton Carnival in 1957 and as two-time president of the Memphis Cotton Exchange. Cotton gave him the resources he needed to engage in his favorite activity—big game hunting. In 1947, Brooks took his wife and daughter on his first of four African safaris. In addition to his hunting, Brooks also made films while on expeditions and gave a series of lectures for both the Goodwyn Institute and the museum. In 1973, Brooks was the first American elected to the Hunting Hall of Fame.
Brooks once said, “There is often a feeling of sadness in collecting animals. But it is overcome by the many other things you do in the way of conservation. I have tried to make every animal I ever collected immortal by giving it to the museum.” To this end, Brooks offered forty-one animal heads on loan to the museum in 1948. He also offered to show the films he made on his safaris. The Museum Advisory Board decided to plan a premier opening of the African Hall. The museum amended the original loan agreement in 1950 after Brooks’ subsequent safaris added more specimens to the African Hall. In the end, Brooks loaned 51 animals to the museum. The museum hosted a second premier in 1952 after Brooks’ second African safari, adding three rooms of trophies. In 1958, museum director Ruth Bush argued for making the collection more educational by placing miniature dioramas in the large hall to show the habitat of the animals. In 1959, the Advisory Board voted to ask Brooks to remove his heads from the three additional rooms and display only one of each species in the large hall to make room for a children’s museum sponsored by the Junior League. In 1973, Brooks gave the collection to the museum as a gift.
In mid-1975, the museum changed from being an eclectic mix of artifacts to focusing on regional cultural and natural history. The staff crated and stored the collection and tried to find a buyer for the heads. Before Brooks died in January 1976, some of his friends attempted to raise funds to build a place to display the animals. The Barry Brooks Foundation received the collection in 1980, but they were unable to place them anywhere. The trophies were sold in 1985. Some of the animals were sold again in 2005 at an auction held at Worlds Away, a downtown store.
More information about Barry Brooks can be found in Peter Hathaway Capstick’s Death in a Lonely Land. Quote from “Barry Brooks, Game Hunter, is Dead at 73,” Commercial Appeal, January 22, 1976.