Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born on June 7, 1917, in Topeka, Kansas, and died on December 3, 2000 in Chicago, IL. She was the first child of David Anderson Brooks and Keziah (Wims) Brooks. Her mother was a school teacher and chose that field of work because she could not afford to attend medical school. (Family lore held that her paternal grandfather had escaped slavery to join the Union forces during the American Civil War.)
When Brooks was six weeks old, her family moved to Chicago, Illinois during the Great Migration; from then on, Chicago remained her home. According to biographer Kenny Jackson Williams, Brooks first attended a leading white high school in the city, Hyde Park High School, transferred to the all-black Wendell Phillips, and then to the integrated Englewood High School. After completing high school, she graduated in 1936 from Wilson Junior College, now known as Kennedy-King College. Williams noted, "These four schools gave her a perspective on racial dynamics in the city that continue[d] to influence her work.
After these early educational experiences, Brooks never pursued a four-year degree because she knew she wanted to be a writer and considered it unnecessary. "I am not a scholar," she later said. "I'm just a writer who loves to write and will always write." She worked as a typist to support herself while she pursued her career.
She would closely identify with Chicago for the rest of her life. In a 1994 interview, she remarked on this,
"(L)iving in the city, I wrote differently than I would have if I had been raised in Topeka, KS...I am an organic Chicagoan. Living there has given me a multiplicity of characters to aspire for. I hope to live there the rest of my days. That's my headquarters.