By Scott Cason
COMMERCE, TX—Texas A&M University-Commerce will host a celebration of the life and works of storied folklorist J. Mason Brewer on Monday, January 30, 2017. The series of events will begin with a 10 a.m. reception in the fourth floor Special Collections offices of the James G. Gee Library. Following a break for lunch from 11:45 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. (attendees will be provided a list of suggested Commerce restaurants at the morning reception), the day will continue with a 1:45 p.m. book signing in the Sam Rayburn Student Center with Bruce A. Glasrud and Milton S. Jordan, co-editors of the book, “J. Mason Brewer, Folklorist and Scholar: His Early Texas Writings.” The event will continue at 2:30 p.m. with a panel discussion to include former students and colleagues of Dr. Brewer, and conclude with selected readings and a discussion of J. Mason Brewer’s life and legacy led by Glasrud and Jordan.
About J. Mason Brewer
John Mason Brewer was known as one of the early authorities on African American Folklore. He was born on March 24, 1896, in Goliad, Texas to J.H. Brewer and Minnie T. Brewer. He was one of five children born into a family of distinguished educators and folklorists. Father, J.H. Brewer, worked in a variety of jobs throughout his life and his stories about his experiences influenced young J. Mason Brewer’s interest in folklore.
After attending public schools in Austin, Dr. Brewer attended Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, and received a Bachelor of Arts in English in 1917. After a year teaching in Austin, Dr. Brewer joined the U.S. Army during World War I. He was stationed in France as a Corporal and served as an interpreter due to his ability to speak French, Spanish and Italian. After returning from the war, he worked in public education. During a brief time working in an oil company in Denver, Colorado, he began to write stories and verses for his company journal and, later, the monthly periodical The Negro American. Dr. Brewer’s interest in writing stories of folklore and history brought him back to education when he received a professorship at Samuel Huston College in Austin (now Huston-Tillotson University).
During his time in Austin, he would meet influential folklorist and member of the Texas Folklore Society J. Frank Dobie. Dobie’s suggestion that Dr. Brewer collect and publish black folklore influenced Dr. Brewer’s career as a folklorist. Starting in 1933, Dr. Brewer would enroll at Indiana University to continue his studies, earning a Master of Arts in 1950. In 1951, he received an honorary doctorate from Paul Quinn College in Waco.
Dr. Brewer’s influence on African American folklore was displayed by the depth within the stories he collected from interviews in the U.S. South. Dr. Brewer folktales focused on people, with tales of preachers, workers, and families and how they dealt with the hardships of everyday life through strength and humor. During his career, he was compared to Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston and Alain Locke for his work to promote Texas folklore.
During the 1930s and 1940s, he published in journals his work on folklore. His first major book, “The Word on the Brazos,” was published in 1953, followed by “Aunt Dicy Tales” (1956), “Dog Ghosts and Other Negro Folktales” (1958), “Worser Days and Better Times” (1965), and the anthology “American Negro Folktales” (1968). “American Negro Folktales” won the Chicago Book Fair Award in 1968 and the Twenty-first Annual Writers Roundup award for outstanding book written by a Texas author in 1969. A number of his early works of poetry and Black history of Texas were republished in the 1970s, including “Negrito” (1933), “Negro Texas Legislators of Texas” (1936).
Dr. Brewer became the first black member of the Texas Folklore Society and Texas Institute of Letters (1954). He was the first black man to serve as an officer in the American Folklore Society as vice president. Dr. Brewer was very active as a member of various folklore and poetry societies throughout his life, participating in symposiums and lectures around the United States.
As a professor, he briefly taught in Claflin College in South Carolina before returning to Austin to teach at Huston-Tillotson College from 1943 to 1958. In 1959, he accepted a position in the English Department at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. He would finish his career at East Texas State University in Commerce, Texas. He was hired as a distinguished visiting professor and was one of the first black professors hired at ETSU in 1969. During his time there, he taught courses in African American folklore and organized symposiums on writing, poetry, and folklore with other faculty members on campus. Dr. Brewer’s papers reside in the Special Collections Department at A&M-Commerce.
Dr. Brewer died on January 24, 1975, and was buried in Austin.