Benjamin Griffith Brawley was born in Columbia, South Carolina, the son of Margaret Saphronia Dickerson and Edward McKnight Brawley, a prosperous Baptist minister and president of a small Alabama college. Brawley was an exceptionally bright boy, and the family's frequent moves never stifled his learning. Up until the third grade he was tutored at home, by his mother, but he also attended schools in Nashville, Tennessee, and Petersburg, Virginia. During summers when he was not studying the classics, Latin, and Greek at home, he earned money by doing odd jobs: working on a tobacco...
Benjamin Griffith Brawley was born in Columbia, South Carolina, the son of Margaret Saphronia Dickerson and Edward McKnight Brawley, a prosperous Baptist minister and president of a small Alabama college. Brawley was an exceptionally bright boy, and the family's frequent moves never stifled his learning. Up until the third grade he was tutored at home, by his mother, but he also attended schools in Nashville, Tennessee, and Petersburg, Virginia. During summers when he was not studying the classics, Latin, and Greek at home, he earned money by doing odd jobs: working on a tobacco farm in Connecticut or in a printing office. One summer he drove a buggy for a white doctor—and studied Greek while the doctor was out. At age twelve he was sent to Virginia to be tutored in Greek and also studied the language with his father.By age thirteen Brawley had excelled so much in his studies that he was sent to the preparatory program at Atlanta Baptist College (later Morehouse College). He was surprised and disappointed on his arrival to note that most of the older students there knew nothing of classic literature, much less Greek or Latin. His classmates were equally surprised to find such a young man in their midst, but they soon discovered just how valuable an asset he was. Aware of his intellectual and grammatical prowess, they brought their compositions to him before passing them on to their instructors. Brawley excelled outside the classroom as well. He played football, managed the baseball team, and cofounded the school newspaper, the Athenaeum (later the Maroon Tiger), for which he wrote numerous articles and poems. Brawley is also said to have initiated the first debate among African American colleges when his Morehouse team challenged another group from Talladega College.In 1901 Brawley graduated with honors from Atlanta Baptist College and immediately took a teaching position (a five-month term at $35 a month) in a one-room school in Georgetown, Florida, but then in 1902 took a teaching job at his alma mater, where he stayed until 1910. During his years at Atlanta Baptist College he also earned his B.A. (1906) from the University of Chicago and his M.A. (1908) from Harvard by taking mostly summer courses. Then he accepted a professorship at Howard University and while teaching there met Hilda Damaris Prowd, who became his wife in 1912. They had no children. After only two years at Howard, he returned to Atlanta Baptist, where, in addition to teaching, he became the college's first dean and where his teaching techniques became legendary.Brawley considered teaching to be a divine profession that should be used to bring students “into the knowledge of truth,” the success of which depended as much upon the efforts of the teacher as that of the student. He expected of his students the same high academic and moral standards that he had learned as a child, and he stressed that teaching should take into account the whole student—his or her physical, emotional, economic, and moral background. Brawley would commonly make students memorize long passages from classical literature, and he returned any compositions with even the slightest degree of sloppiness or imprecision, marking them with terse comments like “Too carelessly written to be carefully read” (Phylon 10 ). A traditionalist first, last, and always, Brawley was also dissatisfied with the state of education in the country, which emphasized materialism and innovation rather than rote learning.Although Brawley still earned his primary living as a teacher, he also seriously began to turn toward another profession. He had written articles for his school paper and other publications for several years, but from 1921 on he produced at least ten books and about one hundred newspaper and magazine articles, book reviews, editorials, and other efforts. Whether he was writing about African-American life and culture, as in A Social History of the American Negro (1921), or more literary topics, as in A New Survey of English Literature (1925), Brawley stressed two major themes: first, that literature must rest on a sound artistic and moral basis and, second, that it should present not just the struggles of individuals and races but “a mirror of our hopes and dreams” (The Negro Genius , p. 196). He was particularly saddened that most novels and short stories about African Americans that came out of Harlem and other places in the 1920s depicted characters as comic or appealed to their lower natures. “We are simply asking,” he wrote in The Negro Genius, “that those writers of fiction who deal with the Negro shall be thoroughly honest with themselves” (p. 206). Only by strict adherence to these high ideals, Brawley believed, could the lot of his own race be improved and race relations be dealt with honestly.In 1920, after many years at Morehouse, Brawley went to the African Republic of Liberia to conduct an educational survey. Shortly after his return in early 1921, he followed in his father's footsteps and became an ordained Baptist minister at the Messiah Congregation in Brockton, Massachusetts. After only a year, however, he found the congregation's type of Christianity not to his liking and resigned. Brawley returned to teaching, first at Shaw University in North Carolina, where his father, now in failing health, taught theology, and in 1931 at Howard, where he stayed until the end of his life. He died at his Washington, D.C., home from complications following a stroke.Brawley's impeccable academic credentials and high standards earned him the respect of almost all his students, although that respect was shown in unusual ways. One story goes that a student came to class carrying under his arm a bundle wrapped in newspaper, which everyone assumed was laundry. Instead the student had carefully wrapped his essay in the bundle to be sure that it met Brawley's exacting standards. Brawley's techniques, plus his difficulty in abiding by any standards other than his own, earned him his share of criticism but far more often than not they achieved desirable results.
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