September 25, 2023

Know your history: African American folklorist J. Mason Brewer

When you think of “folklore,” an African American may not initially come to mind. We are about to change that. In this week’s “Know Your History,” we introduce you to scholar and folklorist John Mason Brewer.

Brewer was born in Goliad in 1896. Over his fifty-year career, he almost single-handedly preserved the African American folklore of his home state.

Brewer’s grandfathers were wagoners who hauled dry goods across Texas. His father worked as a cowboy, traveling to the Indian Territories and Kansas. The stories they shared fostered Brewer’s love of folk tales, while his mother, Minnie, a schoolteacher, inspired him to make scholarship his life’s work.

When Brewer graduated from Wiley College in Marshall, Texas in 1917. He went on to teach at various institutions, including Samuel Huston College in Austin, Texas, Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas, Claflin College in Orangeburg, South Carolina, Texas Southern University in Houston, Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, and East Texas State University in Commerce, Texas (now Texas A&M University–Commerce).

He also wrote poetry, in addition to collecting the folk tales he heard at schools and churches, in general stores and barbershops—the places of everyday life for black Texans.

While teaching in Austin in the 1930s, Brewer shared some of his tales with folklorist J. Frank Dobie. Impressed, Dobie arranged for their publication under the title Juneteenth.

Many more books followed, filled with tales that Brewer learned firsthand from Texas’s former slaves and their descendants. Recorded in the dialect of their tellers, the stories revolve around preachers and overseers, husbands and wives, reflecting the hardship and humor of the “coming-up times” after slavery.

He published numerous collections of folklore and poetry, most notably The Word on the Brazos (1953), Aunt Dicey Tales (1956), Dog Ghosts and Other Texas Negro Folk Tales (1958), and Worser Days and Better Times (1965).  His books serve as a timeless record of Texas storytelling, and powerful proof of what he called “folklore as a living force.”

Brewer was the first African American to be an active member of the Texas Folklore Society, to be a member of the Texas Institute of Letters, and to serve on the council of the American Folklore Society. He was also the first African American to deliver a lecture series at the University of Arizona, the University of California, and the University of Colorado, and he broke the color barrier at Austin’s Driskill Hotel. He has been compared to Zora Neale Hurston, Joel Chandler Harris, and Alain Locke. He also published a book on African American legislators in Texas during the Reconstruction era up until their disenfranchisement.

John Mason Brewer died in 1975 at the age of 79.

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