Magazine article American Visions

Imperiled: The Historic J. Mason Brewer Home

Magazine article American Visions

Imperiled: The Historic J. Mason Brewer Home

Article excerpt

African-American folklorist J. Mason Brewer (1896-1975) maintained, "If we do not respect our past, the future will not respect us." From the late 1920s to the 1960s, Brewer traveled throughout Texas and the South, collecting the folk wisdom of former slaves and the first generations born after Emancipation. Without his efforts, a valuable portion of their lives, beliefs and experiences would have been lost.

Like their ancestor, Brewer's descendents are striving to preserve a historical resource that is in danger of disappearing. Brewer's bungalow in Austin, Texas, which has been in the Brewer family since its construction in 1925, will be demolished by the city if it is not renovated. Led by his niece Minnie M. Miles, the family and other supporters are trying to raise money to restore Brewer's home.

They hope to turn the bungalow into a "housemuseum," where visitors would learn about the scholar's accomplishments and study historical documents collected by the family. On display in the restored home would be family archival materials and artifacts, including letters describing family and community life, newspaper clippings, photographs, and early volumes of Brewer's works. The house would also serve as a gathering place for artists and scholars and a site for lectures and symposiums on African-American families, folk art, folklore and music.

The house has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places for four years, not only because of its architecture, but also because of the family's prominence in the Austin community. All four of Brewer's grandparents were former slaves. His maternal grandmother, Lucy Lott Mitchell, who was literate, sent all eight of her children to college with money she earned washing clothes. His father, a Texas cowboy, became a successful businessman in Austin after moving there from Goliad, Texas, with his wife and children in 1903. Brewer and his five siblings received college degrees, and he and his sister Stella Brewer Brookes earned their doctorates. The family's connections to influential members of Austin's African-American community, such as Barbara Jordan and Tillotson College President Mary E. Branch, have facilitated relationships with many civic and community leaders over the years.

Brewer grew up in a household that stressed the importance of education and culture, and his pursuits reflected his upbringing. Lorenzo Thomas, professor of English at the University of Houston--Downtown, notes that Brewer was both "a competent young poet" and "an activist in terms of promoting the work of other African-American writers." In 1936 Brewer edited Heralding Dawn, a collection of works by African-American poets in Texas.

A former colleague, James W. Byrd, professor emeritus of literature and language at Texas A&M University--Commerce, considered Brewer a personal friend and admired his resilience, especially as the first active African-American member of the Texas Folklore Society. Byrd recalls that Brewer's membership in the society, particularly from the 1930s to the 1950s, crossed both professional and personal boundaries. Brewer gave lectures and published articles about African-American folklore in the society's publications, introducing aspects of Texas life with which many members were unfamiliar. …

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