Missionary, educator. Brawley was born on March 18, 1851, in Charleston to free African American parents, James and Ann Brawley. In 1861 his parents sent him to Philadelphia to further his education. After three years of grammar school, Brawley attended the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth until 1866. On returning to Charleston, Brawley was a shoemaker’s apprentice for several years. In September 1870 he became the first full-time theology student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. However, three months later Brawley transferred to Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and became that institution’s first African American student. With the aid of various white benefactors Brawley was able to pay his tuition. During summer recesses he earned additional income as a Baptist lay preacher. Following graduation in 1875, Brawley was ordained by the council of a white Baptist church in Lewisburg.
The American Baptist Publication Society hired Brawley to perform missionary service among black South Carolinians. Although there were numerous black Baptist congregations statewide, Brawley found no existing state convention. Accordingly, in 1876 he organized the Colored Baptist Educational, Missionary, and Sunday School Convention. He went on to organize numerous local Sunday school programs throughout the state. A key ally in these endeavors was the Reverend Jacob Legare, pastor of the Morris Street Baptist Church in Charleston. Meanwhile, Brawley raised funds for Benedict College in Columbia, where he also served on the faculty.
Brawley’s personal life was disrupted in 1877 with the death of his first wife, Mary Warrick Brawley. In December 1879 he married Margaret Dickerson. The marriage produced four children. The couple’s second son, Benjamin Griffith Brawley, became a noted African American educator.
In October 1883 Brawley accepted the presidency of the Alabama Baptist Normal and Theological School and moved to Selma, Alabama. During his tenure the school expanded and became known as Selma University. Due to his wife’s failing health, Brawley later relocated to Sumter, South Carolina, to assume a pastorate. While there, he was instrumental in founding Morris College in 1908 and served as its first president. During this period Brawley devoted much effort to promoting missionary activities in Africa, especially in Liberia. He also was editor of the Baptist Tribune, a weekly denominational journal, and wrote various monographs, including Sin and Salvation, a popular African American evangelism textbook. Throughout his career Brawley was noted widely as an energetic, accomplished public speaker.
Brawley served as pastor of the White Rock Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, from 1912 to 1920. During his last three years, Brawley was a professor of Old Testament history at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. On January 13, 1923, he died in Raleigh following a brief illness. He was interred within the White Rock Baptist Churchyard, Durham, North Carolina.
Pegues, Albert W. Our Baptist Ministers and Schools. Springfield, Mass.: Willey, 1892.
Tindall, George Brown. South Carolina Negroes, 1877–1900. 1952. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003.