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The Black Renaissance in Washington, DC, 1910-1937
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Sterling Allen Brown
Writer, Folklorist, Educator
May 1, 1901 - January 13, 1989

Sterling Allen Brown was born on May 1, 1901 on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D. C. He was the only son and the youngest of six children born to a former slave, Sterling Nelson Brown and Adelaide Allen. His father was pastor of the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church and professor of religion at Howard University; his mother was a graduate of Fisk University.

Brown attended Dunbar High School where he was taught by Haley Douglass, grandson of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, and Jessie Redmon Fauset, the novelist and founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He was raised in the rich intellectural environment at Howard University where he met black scholars such as W.E.B. DuBois and Alain Locke. At home his mother inspired him by reading the works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

In 1918, at the age of 17, Brown received an academic scholarship to Williams College. While at Williams College, Brown was introduced to the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Joseph Conrad, and Sinclair Lewis. He also began to explore African American music during his years at Williams. Blues and jazz were not considered legitimate music during this time period but, Brown loved to listen to blues singer Mamie Smith. After graduating from Williams, Phi Beta Kappa in 1922, Brown entered Harvard University. At Harvard he was introduced to the poetry of Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson.

Brown earned a master’s degree from Harvard in 1923 and began teaching English at Virginia Seminary and College in Lynchburg, Virginia. In Lynchburg, he was exposed to the rural population of the South where he met many colorful characters, such as Calvin "Big Boy" Davis (musician and singer), "Preacher" (a self-appointed prophet of doom) and "Slim" (a waiter who loved to tell tall tales), who influenced his poetry. Brown was popular with his students and he began to invite students to his home to listen to blues and jazz and to read poetry that was not a part of the college’s English curriculum.

He married Daisy Turnbull in 1927. Brown began teaching at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee in 1928 and also taught at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri before accepting a position at Howard University as professor English in 1929.

Brown remained at Howard for 40 years. He briefly returned to Harvard in 1931 and 1932 to do doctoral work and published his first collection of poetry, Southern Road.

Later, he published The Negro in American Fiction (1937) and Negro Poetry and Drama (1937). He also co-edited an anthology, The Negro Caravan with Arthur P. Davis and Ulysses Lee. He was also national editor of Negro Affairs for the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) between 1936 and 1940. The FWP was a federally funded program that hired writers to collect American folklore.

Brown also spent semesters teaching at Vassar College, Atlanta University and New York University while still at Howard. At Howard he was not only an instructor, but also a mentor to students who included Stokely Carmichael, Kwame Nkrumah, Ossie Davis and Amiri Baraka.

He retired from Howard in 1969 and returned to publishing poetry. In 1975 Brown published his second book of poetry, The Last Ride of Wild Bill and Eleven Narratives. Southern Road was also reprinted in 1975.

Brown championed blues and jazz as legitimate art forms and treated the subjects of his poetry as black folk heroes. He received honorary doctorates from Williams and Vassar Colleges, Howard, Harvard, and Brown Universities. He was elected to the Academy of American Poets and named poet laureate of the District of Columbia. He died of leukemia on January 13, 1989 in Takoma Park, Maryland.


(1922) second prize from Opportunity magazine for poem "Roland Hayes"

(1927) first prize from Opportunity magazine for poem "When de Saints Go Ma’ching Home"

(1927) third prize (shared with Frank Horne) from Opportunity magazine for an essay, "The Plight of Certain Intellectuals"


Brown, Sterling Allen, Microsoft(R) Encarta(R) Africana (c)&(p) 1999 Microsoft Corp.

Bigelow, Barbara Carlisle (editor), Contemporary Black Biography, Gale Research, Inc., 1994

Spradling, Mary Mace (editor), In Black and White, Gale Research Company, 1980

Doris Greer
(formerly) Senior Services Outreach Manager
Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

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The Black Renaissance in Washington, D.C., 1920-1930s
http://www.dclibrary.org/blkren/ | last updated June 20, 2003