Benjamin Brawley

1882 –

Benjamin Griffith Brawley was born in Columbia, South Carolina, on April 22, 1882 and was raised in Petersburg, Virginia. Brawley was the second eldest of nine children born to Margaret Saphronia (née Dickerson) and Edward McKnight Brawley. The elder Brawley was born in Charleston, South Carolina and was the first African American to earn a degree from Bucknell University. He was also the first president of Morris College in South Carolina and, later, served as president of Selma University in Alabama. Edward Brawley was also an author and Baptist clergyman who wrote the book Sin and Salvation. Benjamin Brawley was first taught at home by his mother, then attended school in Nashville, starting in third grade. At twelve, he began to study Latin and, at fourteen, his father taught him Greek. His early instruction also included regular readings of poetry. Brawley enrolled at Atlanta Baptist Seminary (now, Morehouse College) when he was thirteen. He graduated with honors in 1901 at age nineteen. Brawley then earned a BA from the University of Chicago in 1906 and an MA from Harvard University two years later. 

Brawley wrote his first booklet of poems, A Toast to Love and Death, while attending Atlanta Baptist Seminary. He also wrote the poem “A Prayer,” about a lynching in Georgia, while in college. It was later set to music. Brawley’s future chapbooks were privately printed and issued by Atlanta Baptist College Press: A Prayer; The Problem and Other Poems; The Desire of the Moth for the Star; and The Seven Sleepers at Ephesus. The Dawn and Other Poems was privately printed in Washington, D.C.

Brawley is better known for his prose publications, which chronicle literary history and, particularly, African American history. A Short History of the Negro (Macmillan Co.) was published in 1913, in response to a student’s complaint about a dearth of literature on African American history. It was praised by NAACP leader Walter White. In the same year, Brawley released History of Morehouse College (Atlanta Baptist College Press), which describes how higher education was administered to African Americans in the early twentieth century. These volumes were followed by A New Survey of English Literature (Alfred A. Knopf, 1925); A Short History of the English Drama (Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc., 1921); A Social History of the American Negro (The Macmillan Co., 1921), which included a history and study of the Republic of Liberia based on Brawley’s five months of travel and research; and The Negro in Literature and Art (Duffield & Company, 1918), which was first released as a privately-printed booklet published in Atlanta in 1910. The Negro in Literature and Art was the first comprehensive work that surveyed the African American community’s contributions to the arts and literature. It was revised and expanded in subsequent years. His later books include Paul Laurence Dunbar: Poet of His People (University of North Carolina Press, 1936), which was the result of a correspondence with James Weldon Johnson in the early 1930s and an intended part of a proposed biographical series of twelve eminent African Americans; Early Negro American Writers: Selections with Biographical and Critical Introductions (University of North Carolina Press, 1935); and History of the English Hymn (The Abingdon Press, 1932). In 1937, Brawley released a revised edition of his father’s book, Sin and Salvation

Though he was a prolific writer of poetry and prose, Brawley’s primary career was in education. He started his professional career as a teacher in Florida and moved back to Atlanta to teach at his alma mater, Atlanta Baptist Seminary. He joined the faculty at Howard University in 1910 and met his future wife, the Kingston native, Hilda Damaris Prowd, shortly thereafter. Prowd shared Brawley’s interests in opera, reading, and travel. He wrote the sonnet “First Sight” about their initial meeting. Brawley returned to Atlanta Baptist Seminary after two years at Howard and was one of three leaders at the institution who transformed it and established Morehouse College. Brawley remained at Morehouse for eight years. While teaching six classes per day and managing administrative duties, Brawley contributed experimental prose and poetry to numerous periodicals, including Lippincott’s Magazine. In 1921, Brawley became an ordained Baptist minister in Boston and a pastor in Brockton, Massachusetts. He left the clergy after a year to teach at Shaw University. He returned to Howard in 1931, where he taught only two courses, thus leaving him with the freedom to write and publish frequently in the 1930s. 

Brawley died in Washington, D.C. on February 1, 1939. In 1991, he was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors.