Educator, author, editor, clergyman. Brawley was born on April 22, 1882, in Columbia to prominent Baptist parents. His father, the Reverend Edward McKnight Brawley, is remembered as the founder of Morris College in Sumter. “My mother [Margaret Saphronia Dickerson] was from Columbia,” Brawley wrote in 1925, “and it was in Columbia, almost in the shadow of the State House, that I first sat up and took notice.” A gifted and enthusiastic student, he earned degrees from the University of Chicago (A.B., 1906) and Harvard (M.A., 1908). In 1912 Brawley married Hilda Damaris Prowd. The couple had no children. In 1921 he was ordained as a Baptist minister by the Massachusetts Baptist Convention. For two years in the early 1920s he served as pastor of the Messiah Baptist Church of Brockton, Massachusetts.
Between 1902 and 1939 Brawley taught English at various predominantly black colleges in the South and East. He was twice at Atlanta Baptist College (later Morehouse College), from 1902 to 1910 and again from 1912 to 1920. The fellow South Carolinian, educator, and writer Benjamin Mays singled Brawley out as one of the “few able, dedicated teachers who made the Morehouse man believe he was ‘somebody.’” From 1923 to 1931 Brawley was on the English faculty at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. He served as professor of English at Howard University in Washington, D.C., during two separate periods: from 1910 to 1912 and from 1931 until his death.
Brawley developed into a prolific writer, contributing works to such periodicals as Bookman, Dial, North American Review, Sewanee Review, and Reviewer. But it was in his writing and editing of books about the African American experience that he pioneered. While he was teaching at Morehouse in 1909, a student pleaded with him to write a textbook that would enable black students to learn something of the experiences and accomplishments of their own people. Four years later, in 1913, Macmillan published his book A Short History of the American Negro. In the ensuing years Brawley wrote or edited History of Morehouse College (1917), Africa and the War (1918), Your Negro Neighbor (1918), New Era Declamations (1918), The Negro in American Literature in the United States (1918), Women of Achievement (1919), A Social History of the American Negro (1921), A Short History of the English Drama (1921), Freshman Year English (1929), Dr. Dillard of the Jeanes Fund (1930), History of the English Hymn (1932), The Negro Genius (1937), and The Best Stories of Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1938). In 1925 Knopf published his college textbook New Survey of English Literature. The University of North Carolina Press brought out three of his last five books: Early Negro American Writers (1935), Paul Lawrence Dunbar: Poet of His People (1936), and Negro Builders and Heroes (1937).
By the mid-1930s the federal Works Progress Administration in South Carolina had identified Brawley as one of the state’s half-dozen outstanding African Americans. Perhaps his chief significance as a writer lay in his ability to articulate what he referred to as “the Negro problem”—the presence and plight of blacks in America. In a 1922 article in The Bookman, Brawley noted “the strange prominence of the Negro throughout the whole course of American history.” Brawley insisted on articulating a positive black self-awareness, which was not typical of literature about African Americans at the time. “Literature should be not only history but prophecy,” he wrote, “not only the record of our striving but also the mirror of our hopes and dreams.” He later expanded his interest beyond the well-being of African American boys and girls alone. “What we want,” he declared, “is that every boy and girl shall receive the full promise of American life. No one is so high that he does not need our interest, nor is anyone so low that he should not have his chance.”
Brawley died on February 1, 1939, at his home in Washington, D.C. In 1991 he was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors.
Brawley, Benjamin G. “The Negro in American Literature.” The Bookman 56 (October 1922): 137–41.
———. Papers. Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C.
Parker, John W. “Benjamin Brawley—Teacher and Scholar.” Phylon 10 (first quarter 1949): 15–24.
———. “Benjamin Brawley and the American Cultural Tradition.” Phylon 16 (second quarter 1955): 183–94.
———. “A Bibliography of the Published Writings of Benjamin Griffith Brawley.” North Carolina Historical Review 34 (April 1957): 165–78.