Shirley Graham Du Bois – Political Activist, Composer, Playwright, and Author

Shirley Graham, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress (source)

Shirley Graham, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress (source)

I wrote a short piece for the Facebook page last week on Shirley Graham Du Bois, but feel that this remarkable woman deserves more attention. Not only was she a well-established political activist before she married her famous husband, W.E.B. Du Bois, in 1951, she was also a composer , a published playwright, a lecturer and an author. Taught as a child to stand up to injustice, she wrote her first editorial when she was 13 and never looked back.

Born November 11, 1896, Shirley was the oldest of five children born to David A Graham, an African Methodist Episcopal minister and his wife Elizabeth Etta Bell Graham. The family moved frequently because of her father’s assignments. Living in both northern and southern states such as Indiana, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Colorado, they ended up in Spokane, Washington, where Shirley graduated from Lewis and Clark High School. Her father officiated at her first marriage to Shadrach McCants in 1918. The couple had two boys, Robert (1923) and David (1925), before obtaining a divorce in 1927.

After the divorce, Shirley left her two boys with her parents and traveled extensively, studying and teaching. She studied at Howard University School of Music, the Institute of Musical Arts in NYC, and at the Sorbonne before entering Oberlin College in 1931 where she received her undergraduate degree and a Masters in Music. She taught music and fine arts during this time to support herself. Later, she took classes toward a doctorate in English at Yale and New York University.

During her time at the Sorbonne, she met many people of African descent and developed a desire to express African and African-American themes through her music. In 1932, her opera, Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro, premiered in Cleveland, Ohio to great acclaim, making her the first African-American woman to write and produce an opera with an all-black cast. It told the story of Africans’ journey to North America as enslaved people, their struggles, and finally their freedom.  It took place in a stadium setting and attracted 25,000 people to the first two performances. She wrote other musicals, as well as comedic and tragic plays, including Deep Rivers (1939), It’s Morning (1940), Track Thirteen (1940), and Elijah’s Raven (1941).

After her time at Oberlin, Shirley served as a director of a unit of the Chicago Federal Theater, the YWCA-USO Director at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and founded the Graham Artists Bureau in Chicago with her brother Bill to secure bookings for African-American artists. Dismissed after defending men who were protesting the deaths of three black soldiers at Fort Huachuca, she was hired by the NAACP as a field secretary to organize new branches across the country.

Shirley was a prolific writer having written her first editorial at the age of 13, after being barred from a YWCA swimming pool. She wrote in several genres, but is particularly known for her biographies for both adults and children. Her first book, George Washington Carver, Scientist, was published in 1944, followed by Paul Robeson, Citizen of the World (1946), and Your Most Humble Servant: Benjamin Banneker (1949), among others. She focused not only on famous African-Americans, but also on international individuals such as Gamal Nassar and Julius Nyerere. She also wrote two novels, Zulu Heart (1974) and a historical novel about the life of Frederick Douglass, There Once Was a Slave (1947) which won the Messner Prize.

W.E.B. Du Bois c. 1946, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress (source)

W.E.B. Du Bois c. 1946, Carl Van Vechten Photographs, Library of Congress (source)

Politically active throughout her life she wrote and delivered many speeches and published articles on a variety of topics related to minorities, women, and peace. Her focus was not confined to issues in the United States, but was global. In 1961, she was one of the founders of Freedomways, a civil rights magazine, and became its first general editor. She was also one of the founders of the Progressive Party and in 1948 gave the keynote address at the convention in Philadelphia which nominated former Vice President Henry Wallace for President.

Shirley’s second marriage was to W.E.B. Du Bois on Feb 27, 1951, about six months after the death of his first wife. Thirty years his junior, she had known him since she was a child and as an adult had worked as a colleague on many common causes.

After their wedding, he was indicted for “un-American” activities, but there was insufficient evidence for a conviction. For the next 10 years, they fought legal battles with the government and continued to be harassed by US officials because of their left-leaning stances.  Finally, they decided to emigrate to Ghana in 1961. They became citizens and even after W.E.B.’s death in 1963, Shirley remained in Ghana until the coup d’etat in 1966.

A woman of many talents, after her husband’s death, Shirley worked with Ghana Television, developing studio space, training staff, and helping to develop the national infrastructure. In 1966, with the overthrow of the government led by Kwame Nkrumah, she moved to Cairo, Egypt to live with her son David who was working as a journalist.

In Cairo, Egypt, she traveled throughout the world speaking and promoting the cause of liberation for Africans, African-Americans, and women. In 1971, she also published her memoir of W.E.B., His Day Is Marching On. In 1977, Shirley traveled to Beijing, China, for cancer treatment, where she died on March 27th.

Shirley Graham Du Bois was a very talented and versatile woman who had a passion for justice that wouldn’t be denied.


Shirley Graham Du Bois Papers, Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

DuBois, Shirley Graham (1896-1944) at Black Past Remembered & Reclaimed

Shirley Graham Du Bois at Wikipedia

Helene Stöcker – Fighting for Women’s Control Over Their Lives

Helene Stöcker c. 1900 (source)

Helene Stöcker c. 1900 (source)

From time to time in women’s rights protests you see signs saying something along the lines of “Didn’t my Grandmother fight for these rights?” It’s true, the battles aren’t new, or confined to any particular country. One of the earliest champions for women’s rights, including control over their own bodies, was Helene Stöcker of Germany.

Born November 13, 1869 in Elberfeld, Germany, Helene grew up in a strict Calvinist household. She was the oldest of eight children born to Peter Heinrich Ludwig Stöcker and Hulda Bergmann Stöcker. Her father had wanted to be a missionary, but had to take over the family business, still Bible reading and daily prayer were part of the family routine. Helene eventually rejected her father’s religion, but acknowledged his influence on her values, including personal integrity, charity, and a sense of justice.

Her mother also influenced her future concerns. Like Margaret Sanger, Helene saw the toll that eight births had taken on her mother. Only five of Hulda’s children survived to adulthood, and when there were complications at the birth of her only son, Helene had to take on the responsibilities of the household. This (along with Gretchen’s situation in Goethe’s Faust, as she later said) led her to consider the consequences related to reproduction for women in traditional relationships.

Helene was a voracious reader and an independent thinker. She attended a girls’ school and in 1890 a teacher’s seminary, preparing to be a teacher. But, instead of following this path, she moved to Berlin and began to attend classes at the university in literature, philosophy and economics. At the time, the university didn’t allow women to obtain degrees, so she moved on to Glasgow and finally to the University at Bern where she received her doctorate in Literature in 1902, becoming one of the first women in Germany to do so.

In 1905, Helene became the head of the League for the Protection of Mothers (Bund für Mutterschutz) which had been founded in Berlin in 1904 by Ruth Bré. The change in leadership was due to a conflict over the direction of the organization. Bré was primarily concerned with the situation of single mothers and their children. In addition to promoting equality of illegitimate children under the law and establishing homes for unwed mothers, Helene also promoted sex education, access to contraceptives, and the legalization of abortion. In 1908 the League was renamed the League for the Protection of Mothers and Sexual Reform (Bund für Mutterschutz und Sexualreform).

The League was engaged in practical solutions, but also political activism and debate. It included many well-known intellectuals both men and women, including Lily Braun, Marie Stritt, Adele Schreiber, Max Weber, and Friedrich Naumann. Their activities and theoretical debate were publicized through two journals, edited by Helene, called Mutterschutz and Die Neue Generation. According to Allen, Stöcker was the intellectual leader of the group. One of her colleagues, Grete Meisel-Hess said that “Her personality expresses a calm self-confidence; no attack can intimidate her or deter her from her chosen course of action.”

One attack common to many feminist groups of the time was the accusation that they promoted “free love.” While the focus of the group was traditional heterosexual relationships, they insisted on the need for equality between men and women in marriage, but also legal recognition of what they called “free relationships,” which included not only support for single mothers, but homosexuality, and the right to divorce.

Beginning during WWI, Helene shifted much of her energy to the Peace movement. She had long been a pacifist having joined the Deutsche Friedensgesellschaft (German Peace Society, DFG) in 1892 while in Berlin. And in 1921, she was involved in the founding of the organization named Paco which later was known as the War Resisters’ International and is still in existence.

Helene never married. In 1899, she spent one semester in school at Glasgow. There she met and fell in love with a German lecturer named Alexander Tilly. Tilly was married with children, but when his wife died in 1902, Helene briefly returned to care for him and his children. She found, however, that maintaining her professional life while being a wife and step-mother was too difficult and she returned to Berlin. In 1905, she met Bruno Springer, a lawyer with whom she had a relationship until his death in 1931. They never married, but kept separate apartments on the same floor to be near each other.

Helene’s written works were extensive, as was her political support for her ideas, including her anti-war efforts. For this reason, life in Germany became difficult during the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi party. In 1937, she was stripped of her German citizenship and her doctorate degree. Her bank account was seized, her writings blacklisted, and her manuscripts burned. She first fled to Switzerland and then England. Attending a conference in Sweden when the war broke out, she decided to stay, but when Norway was invaded, she left Europe and eventually ended up in the United States where she died of cancer on February 24, 1943.

Note: Most of Helene Stöcker’s works don’t seem to have been translated into English, but the journal article in Signs by Ann Taylor Allen gives an excellent analysis of her ideas and how they contrasted with other men and women both in and outside of the League. If you’re interested in her ideas I highly recommend it.

Helene Stöcker (1869-1943) (link to pdf file)

Allen, Ann Taylor. “Mothers of the New Generation: Adele Schreiber, Helene Stöcker, and the Evolution of a German Idea of Motherhood, 1900-1914”. Signs 10.3 (1985): 418–438.(Behind a subscription wall at Jstor, but you can read three articles free every 14 days.)

Braker, Regina, “Helene Stocker’s Pacifism in the Weimar Republic: Between Ideal and Reality“, at Project Muse. (The full text is available only through institution subscription, but the summary has good information.)

Women in Law: A Bio-bibliographical Sourcebook by Rebecca Mae Salkar and Mary Volcansek (excerpt from Google Books)

Helene Stöcker, “The Modern Woman” (1893, at German History Docs

Elizabeth Piper Ensley – Organizing African-American Suffragists

Elizabeth Piper Ensley c. 1900, Denver Public Library (source)

Elizabeth Piper Ensley c. 1900, Denver Public Library (source)

Yesterday, I posted an article on Facebook by Lynn Yaeger at Vogue entitled The African-American Suffragists History Forgot. It was a good, short article which gave names of a number of African-American women involved in the suffrage movement, including a couple I have never heard of. One of these is Elizabeth Piper Ensley, a woman who had extensive contacts in the east where the suffrage movement was bigger news, but who did her work in the west.

Not much is known about Elizabeth’s childhood. She was born around 1848 in the Caribbean Islands and was well-educated, probably to the level of a college degree. One source says that she received part of her education in Germany and France. Whether abroad or at home, when she moved to Boston in the 1870s, she made good use of her education by teaching school and helping to establish a library. She also got involved in suffrage and social reform groups active in Boston at the time.

In 1882, Elizabeth married Howell N Ensley and they moved to Washington D.C where they were both associated with Howard University, possibly as teachers. Some time before 1888, they decided to travel west and settled in Denver, Colorado. It was a period of economic depression in the area with a lot of unemployed miners moving to Denver with their families. Elizabeth got involved in reform efforts using her contacts in Boston and Washington to assist in relief efforts for the poor.

Around the same time, the Colorado Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association was reorganized with a desire to put women’s suffrage on the November 1893 ballot. The Colorado State Constitution of 1876  gave women the right to vote, but only in local school elections. The Equal Suffrage Association was originally founded at that time to work toward suffrage in state-wide elections, but had ceased functioning.

The Association reorganized with meager resources, just $25 and Elizabeth became treasurer. She took on a leadership role in two areas, first in developing the financial backing needed for the campaign, but probably more important to her, she organized black women. Together, they influenced the all-male electorate to vote in favor of the amendment and women in Colorado won the right to vote on November 7, 1893.

To Elizabeth, having the right to vote wasn’t enough. She soon organized the Women’s League to educate black women on the issues, why, and how to vote. During the next year, women helped to vote into the legislature a black man, lawyer Joseph Stuart, and three women, the first female state legislators in the country. She reported on the election in an article written for Women’s Era, the first monthly newspaper published by and for African-American women, founded and edited by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin.

In 1904, she founded the Colorado Association of Colored Women’s Clubs with a focus on community and education programs. In her club work, she also served as the only black member of the Colorado Federation of Women’s Clubs.

Elizabeth died in 1919 and was buried in Denver’s Riverside Cemetery. In 2005, Sheba R. Wheeler of The Denver Post reported on a project which examined burial records at Riverside Cemetery in Denver. Riverside is one of the oldest cemeteries in Denver and the records proved to be a goldmine of information about the African-Americans living in the area in the late 19th century. Among them were the records of Elizabeth and her family. Although sources say that the Ensleys moved to Denver in 1890, Elizabeth’s husband died in 1888 in Denver. The couple had two children, Roger G. Ensley (1883-1915) and Charlotte Ensley Britton (1885-1948) who are also buried at Riverside.

The history of African-American women may have been forgotten, or suppressed, in the past, but hopefully this is changing.


“The African-American Suffragists History Forgot” by Lynn Yaeger, Vogue
Elizabeth Piper Ensley, Autry National Center of the American West
Elizabeth Piper Ensley at Find A Grave
Elizabeth Piper Ensley, Women of the West Museum
Denver cemetery’s data “very valuable” to state” by Sheba R. Wheeler, The Denver Post

The Assassination of Empress Myeongseong of Korea

Empress Myeongseong of Korea (source)

Empress Myeongseong of Korea (source)

On October 8, 1895, Empress Myeongseong of Korea, known as Queen Min during her lifetime, was assassinated for political reasons. She was the first official wife of King Gojong, the King of Joseon and the first emperor of Korea. After the first Sino-Japanese War, Queen Min advocated ties between Korea and Russia in an attempt to reduce Japanese influence. Yi Ha-eung, the Heungseon Daewongun (King Gojong’s father and regent during his minority), orchestrated several failed rebellions in an attempt to remove her from influence before eventually achieving success.

In 1863 when King Cheoljong of Joseon died, the Grand Royal Dowager Queen Sinjeong with Yi Ha-eung a member of an obscure branch of the Yi clan managed to have Yi Myeongbok, his son, crowned King Gojong of Joseon. Yi Myeongbok was only 11 years old so Yi-Ha-eung was given the title Heungseon Daewongun and power to act as regent. He proved to be a wise ruler, eliminating corruption in the government, revising laws, and reforming military techniques.

When Gojong turned 15, the search for a wife began. She had to be beautiful, healthy, and of only an ordinary level of education. It was also essential that she have no close relatives who could make a claim on the throne. The daughter of Min Chirok of the Yeoheung Min clan met these qualifications. Born on October 19, 1851, by the age of eight both of Min’s parents had died and she was living in the House of Gamgodang. She was also of sufficiently noble birth, both Daewongun’s wife and mother were from the same clan and it was also the source of two previous Queen consorts.

The selection process was exacting, but after a final interview with the Daewongun, Min married Gojong on March 20, 1866. At 16, she was so slight that a court lady was assigned to hold up the traditional wig worn by brides at royal weddings. But if they thought Min was weak because of her small stature, they were wrong. Officials soon found out that the new queen was an ambitious woman. Rather than participating in lavish parties and afternoon teas, she spent her time reading and furthering her education in areas such as history, science, and politics.

Eventually, Min began to take an active role in politics. She also gave birth to a son who sadly died four days after his birth. Seeing the danger that the Queen posed, Daewongun took this opportunity to accuse her of being unable to bear a healthy male heir and declared the son of a concubine, Lee Gwi-in, as the official crown prince. But Min had also been forming a secret faction against the Daewongun. With their help, she presented a formal impeachment to the Royal Council of Administration. By this time, Gojong was old enough to rule in his own right and the Council forced Heungseon Daewongun into retirement. Min also took this opportunity to banish Lee Gwi-in and her son, stripping them of royal titles.

During the 1870s, through various envoys and a show of Japanese naval force, Korean officials signed the Ganghwa Treaty in 1876 opening Korea to Japaneses trade. The balance of power was shifting in Asia with changes occuring in China, Russia, and Japan. Gojong and Min sent fact finding missions to Japan to determine its degree of westernization and plans for Korea. Min hoped to open Korea to western technology, but limit the control of Japan in the country. The majority of the Royal Council, however, was strictly isolationist.

Gyeongbokgung Palace where Queen Min died (source)

Gyeongbokgung Palace where Queen Min died (source)

In 1881, Min and Gojong sent another fact finding mission to Japan. As a result, the Queen reorganized the government, creating various bureaus to deal with foreign relations, commerce, and the military. One goal was to import western technology, specifically to modernize military weapons and techniques. This was met with opposition and in September of that year a plot was uncovered to overthrow the Queen’s faction and put one of Daewongun’s sons on the throne.

Over the next few years, there were several attempts to overthrow the Queen’s influence. She was pro-China and pro-gradual westernization. Others were in favor of immediate westernization and willing to use Japanese influence to achieve it. Twice Gojong signed treaties with the Japanese reimbursing them for losses during coup attempts. In both cases, Min countered by making agreements with the Chinese.

With peace established in 1885, Min began to achieve some of her goals. A palace school was established for children of the elite with courses taught in English. The first all-girl’s school was founded, giving Korean girls a right to an education for the first time. Both of these institutions were headed by Protestant missionaries as Min was much more tolerant of other religions than her father-in-law had been. Their success brought other missionaries, both Protestant and Catholic, which introduced changes in the areas of medicine and music as well. Although Min never converted, she like many of the ideas that came with the western influence.

Military modernization continued with the help of the Americans, Trade became firmly established not only with the Japanese, but with China and other western nations, and the currency was stabilized. Modern agriculture methods and machines were imported and telegraph lines were installed between Korea, China, and Japan.

But there were external influences outside of Min and Gojong’s control. After the defeat of the Chinese in the Sino-Japanese war, Min sought help from Russia to block Japanese influence. Once again the Japanese reached out to Daewongun to attempt to remove her from power. This time they were successful.

Early on the morning of the 8th, troops loyal to the Daewongun attacked the Gyeongbokgung Palace, overpowered the royal guard, and admitted a group of Japanese assassins allegedly recruited by Miura Gorō, the Japanese Minister to Korea at the time. Three women were killed. When it was determined which one was Queen Min, her body was burned and her ashes scattered. The incident prompted international criticism, anti-Japanese sentiment in Korea, and the recall of Miura to Japan. Miura and the military personal involved were tried in Japan, but found not-guilty on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

King Gojong and the crown prince took refuge in the Russian legation. After Daewongun’s return to power, with the encouragement of Japanese officials, he presented a proposal to lower Min’s status posthumously from Queen consort to commoner. Although it appears that Gojong was always swayed by others, in this case he took a strong stand and refused to sign. He supposedly said, “I would rather slit my wrists and let them bleed than disgrace the woman who saved this kingdom.”

Over the next two years, Japanese influence was reduced and in October 1897 King Gojong returned to the palace and proclaimed the founding of the Korean Empire. He had Min’s remains recovered and properly entombed in in Namyangju, Gyeonggi, South Korea. Instead of having her status reduced, Queen Min was declared Empress Myeongseong of Korea posthumously.

Funeral of Empress Myeongseong in 1897 (source)

Funeral of Empress Myeongseong in 1897 (source)

Further Reading
Empress Myeongseong at Wikipedia
Queen Min of Joseon Korea at About Education
Empress Myeongseong Assassinated at the Sword of Japanese Killers, Body then Burned: Will This Established Theory Be Overturned?“, The Kyunghyang Shinmum
Consort Profile: Empress Myeongseong of Korea, at The Mad Monarchist
The Sobering Truth of Empress Myeongseong’s Killing, The Chosunilbo

Khutulun: Wrestling Warrior Shero

This post originally appeared on one of my favorite blogs, Sheroes of History, and was written by the blog’s founder Naomi Wilcox-Lee. I hope you enjoy it and check out the other great women on the site.

Khutulun wrestling a challenger, a miniture c. 1410

Khutulun wrestling a challenger, a miniature c. 1410 (source)

I first read about KHUTULUN in an article called ‘7 of the Most Amazing Women You’ve Never Heard Of’ which is what first started me thinking about doing this blog. And indeed until that point I had never heard of this wrestling, warrior, princess.

Khutulun lived in a country called Mongolia over 800 years ago. Her name means ‘moonlight’, and her father, Kaidu, was a powerful ruler whose kingdom stretched far and wide across Central Asia.

Now Khutulun had some pretty impressive relatives; she was great-great-grandaughter of the fearsome invader Ghengis Khan, and niece to the equally ruthless Khublai Khan. And while it seems she certainly carried the family gene  for fearlessness, her family connections didn’t do her or her father any good – in fact it was her cousin Khubilai Khan who repeatedly tried to invade the land her father ruled over.

She learned how to ride a horse and use a bow & arrow from a young age, as did many young Mongolian boys and girls, and by the time she was grown she became used to bravely riding into battle with her father. Throughout her life she rode into battle alongside her father, fighting of her cousin’s armies.

The explorer Marco Polo once wrote about Khutulun and her signature battle move. He described how she would ride into the midst of the battle on her horse and snatch up a soldier before riding off with him (and presumably disposing of him elsewhere!) Marco Polo said she grabbed these men “as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird”!

Off the battlefield Khutulun became known for her incredible athletic ability as a wrestler, and has gone down in history as the woman no man could beat at wrestling!

Her mother and father really wanted Khutulun to get married, but it seems she wasn’t too keen on the idea. She made an agreement with her father that if any man could beat her at wrestling, she would marry him. The word spread across the kingdom and many men started arriving to take up the challenge. To compete the men had to bet a number of horses, most would maybe give about 10. If Khutulun won the match she could keep the horses, but if the other guy won, he could marry her. As more and more men walked away defeated by the strong princess the number of horses they said they would give her started to go up! Khutulun became very, very rich (with horses!) One day a man offered a thousand horses to wrestle her!  By this time she had beaten loads of men who had all walked away without their horses and without a bride! By the time this suitor offered the 1000 horses to wrestle her, Khutulun’s parents were pleading with her to just let him win!

She was worried about upsetting her parents, so she agreed to let him win. Well that was the plan; huge crowds gathered to watch the match, and it seemed like finally she may have met her match; they wrestled too and fro with Khutulun using all her strength! The match went on for much longer than normal and it looked like maybe this new suitor would win. But Khutulun was proud of her strength and knew she was a great wrestler, in the end she couldn’t just let this stranger win, and just like the many men who had come before him, he was defeated by the awesome Warrior Princess.

Eventually Khutulun was allowed to choose her own husband, and she remained an undefeated wrestler. Today when Mongolian men wrestle in the traditional way they must wear a top with a completely open front – so that their opponent can be sure they are a man! And everytime they win a match they honor Khutulun by raising their arms in the air and bearing their chests.

Check out Sheroes of History video about Khutulun.

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