Brawley, Benjamin 1882–1939
Benjamin Brawley 1882–1939
Benjamin Brawley was one of the leading black academics of the 1930s, and the author of a number of scholarly tomes that became standard college textbooks for a generation of students after his death in 1939. A professor of English at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Brawley wrote extensively on the achievements of African-American writers like Paul Lawrence Dunbar. His 1921 book, A Social History of the American Negro, was a groundbreaking work that remained in print for some five decades.
Brawley was born on April 22, 1882, in Columbia, South Carolina. His grandparents had been free blacks, and his father, Edward McKnight Brawley, was a respected minister in Columbia’s African-American community and a leader in the black Baptist church of the era. The elder Brawley was also an instructor at Benedict College, a Baptist-affiliated school for blacks in Columbia. He went on to take jobs at colleges or churches in Nashville, Tennessee, and Petersburg, Virginia. The Brawleys sent their 13-year-old son to the preparatory school of Atlanta Baptist College, which later became Morehouse College. He earned a bachelor’s degree there in 1901 and took a job teaching in a oneroom schoolhouse in Georgetown, Florida, for a year before returning to his alma mater as an instructor in English and Latin.
Brawley followed the academic accomplishments of his father, who had been the first African American to earn a degree from Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University, and spent summers studying at the prestigious University of Chicago. He also began writing poetry around this time, the first volumes of which were published by Atlanta Baptist College in the early years of the twentieth century: A Toast to Love and Death and The Problem, and Other Poems. By 1906 he had earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and moved on to Harvard University, from which he graduated with a master’s degree in 1908. Atlanta Baptist College made him a professor of English, but Brawley moved on to Howard University in 1910 to take a job teaching literature there.
After he married Hilda Damaris Prowd in 1912, Brawley returned to the faculty of Atlanta Baptist College, where he served as a dean until 1920. During this
At a Glance…
Born Benjamin Griffith Brawley on April 22, 1882, in Columbia, SC; died on February 1, 1939, in Washington, DC; son of Edward McKnight (a clergyman and an educator) and Margaret Sophronia (Dickerson) Brawley; married Hilda Damaris Prowd, July 20, 1912. Education: Atlanta Baptist College (now Morehouse College), BA, 1901; University of Chicago, BA, 1906; Harvard University, MA, 1908.
Career: Teacher, Georgetown, FL, 1901-02; author, 1902-39; Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA, instructor in English, history, and Latin, 1902-10, professor of English and dean, 1912-20; Howard University, Washington, DC, professor of English, 1910-12, 1931-39; Association of Colleges for Negro Youth, president, 1919-20; Baptist minister, 1921-39; Messiah Baptist Church, Brockton, MA, pastor, 1921-22; Shaw University, Raleigh, NC, professor of English, 1923-31, dean, 1930-31; lecturer at various colleges and universities, 1920s-1930s.
Awards: Honorary doctorate, Shaw University, 1927, and Morehouse College, 1937.
period he wrote A Short History of the American Negro and the groundbreaking work The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States. He was also a regular contributor of essays and reviews to The Dial, Lippincott’s Magazine, The Bookman, Harvard Monthly, and Sewanee Review. In one essay for Bookman that reappeared in a 1923 anthology of the magazine, Brawley wrote about America’s contradictory social and political landscape, and the African American’s place in it. Commenting on the remarkable rise in literacy rates among blacks since the end of the Civil War, he decreed that “Literature should be not only history but prophecy, not only the record of our striving but also the mirror of our hopes and dreams.… The Negro himself.… is the supreme challenge to American literature. Like Banquo’s ghost he will not down. All faith and hope, all love and longing, all rapture and despair, look out from the eyes of this man who is ever with us and whom we never understand.”
In 1921, Brawley undertook a trip to the west African nation of Liberia on the occasion of the centenary of its founding as a refuge for freed American slaves, and reported on its schools and social conditions. He followed his father’s career path once again when he was ordained a Baptist minister on June 2, 1921, by the Massachusetts Baptist Convention. That same year, his Social History of the American Negro was published, a classic text that would remain in print until 1971.
For a time, Brawley served as pastor of the Messiah Baptist Church in Brockton, Massachusetts, but left the ministry when he realized his beliefs conflicted with those of the more conservative church hierarchy. Returning to academia, he taught at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, a Baptist college where his father served as professor of theology. In 1931 Brawley returned to Washington and the faculty of Howard University, where he would spend the remaining eight years of his life. During this period his publications include A History of the English Hymn and Paul Laurence Dunbar, Poet of His People, one of the definitive early biographies of the African-American writer who died in 1906.
During his own lifetime, Brawley wrote or edited some 17 titles in all, including A Short History of the English Drama and Early Negro American Writers. His seminal 1918 work, The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States, was revised and published in 1937 as The Negro Genius: A New Appraisal of the Achievement of the American Negro in Literature and the Fine Arts. In it, the scholar expounded at length on the romantic nature of his race, noting that its most eloquent expression came in the form of the visual and aural arts, even in the oratory of its preachers. “But there is something deeper,” he wrote, “than the sensuousness of beauty that makes for the possibilities of the Negro in the realm of the arts, and that is the soul of the race…. No race can rise to the greatest heights of art until it has yearned and suffered. The Russians are a case in point. Such has been their background in oppression and striving that their literature and art today are marked by an unmistakable note of power. The same future beckons to the American Negro.”
After suffering a stroke, Brawley’s health worsened and he died in Washington on February 1, 1939. One of the eulogies at his funeral was delivered by Howard University’s Dean of the School of Religion, Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, who later became advisor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In his lifetime, Brawley had amassed a large collection of the works of English-American literary critic Richard Le Gallienne, as well as a number of rare titles from black writers of the past century. The entire collection was donated to Howard University and became part of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, the university’s world-renowned repository of African and African-American documents.
A Toast to Love and Death (poems), Atlanta Baptist College, 1902.
The Problem, and Other Poems (poems), Atlanta Baptist College, 1905.
A Short History of the American Negro, Macmillan, 1913; 4th revised edition, 1939.
History of Morehouse College, Morehouse College (Atlanta, GA), 1917; reprinted, McGrath Publishing, 1970.
The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States, Duffield, 1918, revised edition, 1921; revised and retitled The Negro Genius: A New Appraisal of the Achievement of the American Negro in Literature and the Fine Arts, Dodd, 1937; reprinted, Biblo & Tannen, 1966.
A Short History of the English Drama, Harcourt, 1921; reprinted, Books for Libraries, 1969.
A Social History of the American Negro, Macmillan, 1921; reprinted, AMS Press, 1971.
New Survey of English Literature: A Textbook for Colleges, Knopf, 1925, reprinted, 1930.
A History of the English Hymn, Abingdon, 1932.
(Editor) Early Negro American Writers, University of North Carolina Press, 1935; reprinted, Books for Libraries, 1968.
Negro Builders and Heroes, University of North Carolina Press, 1937; reprinted, 1965.
The Seven Sleepers of Ephesys (poems), Foote & Davis (Atlanta, GA), 1971.
Brawley, Benjamin, The Negro Genius: A New Appraisal of the Achievement of the American Negro in Literature and the Fine Arts, Dodd, 1937.
Farrar, John (ed.), The Bookman Anthology of Essays, George H. Doran, 1923.
Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
“Benjamin (Griffith) Brawley,” Contemporary Authors On line, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (February 1, 2004).