Benjamin Griffith Brawley was a leading scholar of African American history and literature in the early 20th century. Although mostly forgotten today, he was well known throughout the country during his lifetime and inspired fellow luminaries such as James Weldon Johnson and George Shepperson. During his nearly four-decade career, Brawley excelled as a historian and literary critic while producing several works that remained influential years after his untimely death in 1939.
Brawley was born in 1882 to Edward McKnight Brawley and Margaret Saphronia Brawley in Columbia, South Carolina. His mother was a Columbia native, and his father, from Charleston, was a Baptist clergyman and university administrator. Benjamin attended school in Petersburg, Virginia, and showed an early affinity for literature and ancient languages. Brawley studied at Atlanta Baptist College (now Morehouse College) before going north to continue his higher education, graduating with a BA from the University of Chicago in 1906 and an MA from Harvard University in 1908; he later received two honorary PhDs. He began writing poetry while still an undergraduate; he wrote his earliest poem, “A Prayer,” in 1899 in response to a Georgia lynching. He was remembered fondly by his professors (all of them white), most notably English professor George Lyman Kittredge.
Following his time at Harvard, Brawley went on to teach at three historically Black colleges and universities from 1910 to 1939. He served as the dean of Atlanta Baptist College/Morehouse College from 1912 to 1920, leading that school through a contentious period. During a two-year break between 1920 and 1922, he traveled to Africa, was ordained, and worked briefly as a minister in Boston. He returned to academia with teaching positions at Shaw University and Howard University. During his time as a professor and administrator, Brawley produced a number of fiction and verse works, including six booklets of poetry as well as dozens of individual poems, stories, and songs.
It was one of his historical works, A Short History of the American Negro (1913), for which Brawley perhaps became best known. This book established Brawley as a noted Black historian at a period known as the nadir of American race relations. A contemporary reviewer wrote that Brawley’s book, “while not the first history of the American Negro written by a man of negro descent, is one of the best, especially for those who desire a brief sketch.” The book was praised for drawing attention to numerous Black men and women of achievement, especially in the literary field. Brawley went on to write several more books of history and literary criticism. For A Social History of the American Negro (1921), Lawrence Dunbar Reddick praised him for telling the story of African Americans while also discussing the “development of the Negro within the nation, and a steady improvement in interracial relations and understanding.”
Despite his contributions to multiple learned fields, recognition of Brawley’s talents waxed and waned throughout his career. One reason for this may be Brawley’s greater interest in literature and culture than in political and social activism. Brawley never received the accolades of more race-conscious African American historians such as Carter G. Woodson or literary critics such as Alain Locke. One exception was in 1927, when the William E. Harmon Foundation offered Brawley an honorable mention. He declined, however, believing that he was a first-rate scholar and that accepting an inferior award would be, in the words of his biographer John W. Parker, in “direct contradiction to his ideal of excellence.” Nearly 80 years after his death, Brawley’s work appeared in Before Harlem, a 2016 edited collection of Black writers who preceded the Harlem Renaissance.
Brawley was fastidious and high minded in his personal life. In 1910, he married Hilda Damaris Prowd, a Jamaican woman who shared his love of high society, opera, and sonnets. They remained together for the rest of Brawley’s life. Brawley was known for his continued attachment to the study of Greek and Latin long after those subjects had fallen out of academic favor. He extended his demand for excellence and perfection to his students, returning poorly written papers with the statement “too carelessly written to be carefully read.”
Following his death from a stroke at the age of 56, the New York Times eulogized Brawley as a “leading scholar of the colored race.” His time at Morehouse College was memorialized by the naming of Brawley Hall, a building that houses the history and English departments.
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