Background and Upbringing

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Born into an educated, middle-class African American family, Sterling A. Brown was the last of six children and the only son of Adelaide Allen Brown and the Reverend Sterling Nelson Brown. His father had taught in the School of Religion at Howard University since 1892, and the year Brown was born, his father also became the pastor of Lincoln Temple Congregational Church. The person who encouraged Brown’s literary career and admiration for the cultural heritage of African Americans, however, was his mother, who had been born and reared in Tennessee and graduated from Fisk University. Brown also grew up listening to tales of his father’s childhood in Tennessee, as well as to accounts of his father’s friendships with noted leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Blanche K. Bruce, and Booker T. Washington.

Brown attended public schools in Washington, D.C., and was graduated from the well-known Dunbar High School, noted for its distinguished teachers and alumni; among the latter were many of the nation’s outstanding black professionals. Brown’s teachers at Dunbar included literary artists such as Angelina Weld Grimké and Jessie Redmon Fauset. Moreover, Brown grew up on the campus of Howard University, where there were many outstanding African American scholars, such as historian Kelly Miller and critic and philosopher Alain Locke.

Brown received his A.B. in 1922 from Williams College (Phi Beta Kappa) and his M.A. in 1923 from Harvard University. He then began a teaching career that took him to Virginia Seminary and College, Lincoln University in Missouri, and Fisk University before he settled at Howard University in 1929. He remained at Howard until his retirement in 1969 and died in Takoma Park, Maryland, on January 13, 1989.