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

10 Women Who Refused to Give Up Their Seats Before Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks c. 1955 (source)

Rosa Parks c. 1955 (source)

When Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on the bus, the community didn’t hesitate to rally around her and begin the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She was a pillar in the community with an unimpeachable character. She was also an activist with experience in the civil rights movement, and the perfect person to give a face to the struggle.

Rosa was seated in the “colored section” of the bus when the “white section” filled up and the driver told her to move. She refused to obey and was subsequently arrested. Her action prompted the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She was an active civil rights worker and at the time secretary of the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP. Although her court case became bogged down in state courts, her action, the boycott, and the successful case of Browder v. Gayle, finally brought about desegregation of the city’s bus system.

This post is intended in no way to take away from what Mrs. Parks did. Rather it is to highlight the fact that there were many brave women who took similar actions.

Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith

Each of these four women were arrested during 1955 for refusing to give up their seats on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Of these four women, Claudette Colvin is probably the most well-known. On March 2, Claudette was forcibly removed from a bus for refusing to give her seat to a white man. She was 15 years old, a student at Booker T. Washington High School, and an active member of the NAACP’s Youth Council. Initially, it was thought that her case might be used to organize a boycott, but when they discovered that Claudette was pregnant the idea was put on hold.

However, after the boycott began, following Parks arrest, attorneys Fred Gray, E.D. Nixon, and Clifford Durr decided to initiate a civil action suit separate from Parks’ case. When Browder, McDonald, Colvin, and Smith agreed to be plaintiffs, they filed Browder v. Gayle in District Court. Another woman, Jeanette Reese, was initially part of the suit but withdrew because of intimidation from the white community. On June 13, 1956, the district court ruled that the bus segregation was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, and the decision was affirmed by the US Supreme Court on November 13, 1956.

Sarah Keys

In 1952, Sarah Keys was a WAC private headed home on furlough from Fort Dix, New Jersey. The bus was integrated; the decision in Morgan v. Virginia had declared Jim Crow laws inoperable on interstate buses in 1946. When Sarah boarded a Carolina Trailways bus in Washington DC, she had no difficulties, but when a new driver took over in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina he demanded that she move to the “colored section” of the bus and give her seat to a white marine.

When she refused to give up her seat, the driver directed all the passengers to another bus and prevented Sarah from boarding. An altercation resulted and Sarah was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. She was kept in jail overnight without being allowed to contact anyone, convicted and charged a fine of $25.

Sarah and her father contacted the NAACP and were referred to Dovey Johnson Roundtree and her law partner Julius Winfield Robertson. Roundtree had been a WAC recruiter in the Deep South and had a similar experience in 1943, in Florida. It was a long battle, but eventually, on November 7, 1955, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued a ruling in Sarah’s favor, finding that forced segregation violated the Interstate Commerce Act.

Sadly, in his position as Chairman of the Commission, J. Monroe Johnson (from South Carolina), failed to enforce the ruling. It wasn’t until after the violence during the Freedom Riders campaign that the Commission was forced to implement their ruling by US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

Irene Morgan

Unlike Rosa Parks, Irene Morgan wasn’t trained in non-violent civil disobedience, so when she was told to move to give up her seat to a white couple, she fought back physically. On July 16, 1944, Irene was seated in the “colored section” of a Greyhound bus when a white couple boarded. Irene and the woman seated next to her were told to move further back. When she refused, the angry driver drove to the jail in the town of Saluda, Virginia, where she was presented with an arrest warrant.

Irene tore up the arrest warrant. When an officer tried to grab her, she kicked him in “a very bad place.” She clawed and tore the shirt of another officer. When she was finally subdued and dragged off of the bus, she was charged with resisting arrest and violating Virginia’s segregation laws. She pleaded guilty of resisting arrest and paid a $100 fine. However, she pleaded not guilty to the violation of the segregation laws and refused to pay the $10 fine.

Eventually, her case, Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, made it to the Supreme Court, with a legal team led by Thurgood Marshall, and won. On June 3, 1946, the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation in interstate travel was unconstitutional. Although the ruling was ignored in much of the South, the Freedom Riders paid tribute to Irene, “Get on the bus, sit anyplace, ‘Cause Irene Morgan won her case. You don’t have to ride Jim Crow.”

Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells c. 1893 (source)

Ida B. Wells c. 1893 (source)

On May 4, 1884, a conductor on a Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company train asked Ida Wells to give up her first class seat to a white man and move to the “Jim Crow” car, which also happened to be the smoking car. The 1875 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or color on public transport, but this was in Memphis, Tennessee, and several companies ignored the ruling, especially in the south where they could get away with it. (This was before the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision of “separate but equal.”)

Ida refused to give up her seat saying that the other car was a smoker and she was in the ladies’ car. The conductor tried to remove her and she held on to the seat and bit the back of his hand. He then went for help from two other men and the three of them succeeded in dragging her out of the train.

Ida hired an attorney, who was paid off by the company, then hired another attorney who won the case in the local circuit court with an award of $500. The company appealed, however, and the decision was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth (source)

Sojourner Truth (source)

In 1865, Sojourner Truth refused to give up her seat and challenged the segregated horse car system in Washington DC. Usually drivers refused to stop when she wanted to ride, even when they did, they insisted that she ride in the Jim Crow car. Sojourner complained to the president of the car system and the Jim Crow car was removed.

Once when a driver refused to stop, she began yelling “I want to ride!” It startled so many people that traffic came to a stop and she was able to get on the horse car. When told to go ride up where the horses were, outside the actual car, she refused. She told him she wasn’t from Virginia or Maryland, but New York, and knew the law and wouldn’t be intimidated!

On another occasion she was slammed up against a door. Reporting the incident got the driver dismissed. Sojourner continued her riding campaign, encouraging others to do the same. According to Margaret Washington, “She acted boldly, and with flair. She knew that because her name was known, she could focus attention on the illegality and injustice of segregation. She repeated her ride-ins often enough and over a long enough period of time to drive home her point.”

Elizabeth Jennings Graham
Elizabeth Jennings Graham c. 1895 (source)

Elizabeth Jennings Graham c. 1895 (source)

Elizabeth Jennings was a schoolteacher and the church organist at the First Colored American Congregational Church in New York City, and on July 16th, 1864 she was running late. She and her friend, Sarah Adams, hailed a horse-drawn streetcar and didn’t notice if there was a sign saying that “Negro Persons” were allowed on the car. The conductor told them to get off and Elizabeth refused telling him he was an “impudent fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to church.”

Sarah got off, but Elizabeth clung to the window frame when he tried to force her off. The conductor drove on, but stopped when he saw a police officer. When the officer boarded, he pushed Elizabeth off of the car and to the sidewalk, damaging her bonnet and dress.

Elizabeth wrote a letter detailing her treatment. It was read in church and sent to Horace Greeley’s newspaper, The New York Daily Tribune. Her father also contacted a lawyer, Chester Arthur, the future US President. Arthur won the case against the Third Avenue Railway Company, saying that “colored persons” couldn’t be kept off of public transportation by company rules “nor by force or violence.”

Frances Watkins Harper
Frances Watkins Harper (source)

Frances Watkins Harper (source)

Frances Watkins Harper was writer, teacher, and public speaker, lecturing on abolitionism, prohibition, and women’s suffrage, both before and after the Civil War. During the Reconstruction era, she also traveled in the south to report on living conditions of freedmen.  In April of 1858, while traveling in Pennsylvania, she was asked to leave one of the city cars. She refused and told her own story in a letter to William Lloyd Garrison’s paper The Liberator.

“The other day, in attempting to ride in one of the city cars, after I had entered, the conductor came to me, and wanted me to go out on the platform. Now, was not that brave and noble? As a matter of course, I did not. Some one interfered, and asked or requested that I might be permitted to sit in a corner. I did not move, but kept the same seat. When I was about to leave, he refused my money, and I threw it down on the car floor, and got out, after I had ridden as far as I wished. Such Impudence!”

"The Liberator" (April 23, 1858) article by Frances Watkins Harper

“The Liberator” (April 23, 1858) article by Frances Watkins Harper

Browder v. Gayle: The Women Before Rosa Parks
Keys v. Carolina Coach Co. at Wikipedia
Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia
Ida B. Wells and Her Passion for Justice
Sojourner Truth: A Life Led By Faith
The Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Margaret Washington
The Schoolteacher on the Streetcar (Elizabeth Jennings)
The Liberator (April 23, 1858) – article written by Frances Watkins Harper

Eleanor and Franklin by Joseph P Nash – A Book Review

Eleanor and Franklin book coverEleanor and Franklin: The Story of Their Relationship Based on Eleanor Roosevelt’s Private Papers by Joseph P. Nash chronicles the evolution of Eleanor Roosevelt from an insecure girl and young woman into a woman who would impact the lives of many, many people. When visiting US installations during WWII, more than once she heard soldiers cry out “Hey, there’s Eleanor!” She radiated warmth and compassion with a down-to-earth style that made people feel like she belonged to them in some way. In many ways she did belong to them. She lived her life in service of others because she truly cared about the condition of human beings and wanted to make their lives better.

Very few people if any will argue that Eleanor Roosevelt was a remarkable person. However, it is easy to think that remarkable people are born that way. That plucked down in history at any time, they would have lived a similar life of accomplishment. This might be true, but I think often the difficulties in life are what bring out the best qualities in people. Mr. Lash takes the time to show us the circumstances in Eleanor’s life that shaped and formed her into the remarkable woman she was.

Lash takes considerable time explaining the dynamics of Eleanor’s childhood. Her father Elliot was the brother of president Theodore Roosevelt. Her mother Anne Hall was decended from the prestigious Ludlow and Livingston families. They were the darlings of society when Society was small and intimate. Anne along with her sisters were celebrated beauties and Elliot had a vibrant and out-going personality. Eleanor, a serious child, was not a beauty and was made aware of this by her mother and her aunts. She worshipped her father who was fun-loving and the light of her life. But her childhood was short-lived. Her father was an alcoholic and unstable emotionally. It eventually became necessary for Anne to leave him and take Eleanor and her brother Hall. As difficult as this was, it was compounded when both of her parents died leaving Eleanor and Hall in the custody of Anne’s mother. Here she grew up in the shadow of aunts and uncles who had their own problems.

When Eleanor married Franklin, she was an insecure young woman eager to please. Although Franklin loved Eleanor, she always longed for a depth of intimacy that he was unable to meet. Her mother-in-law Sara Delano Roosevelt was very domineering, and although she was always very nice to Eleanor, she was determined to have her way and direct the course of her only son’s life if at all possible. She would be a constant presence in their lives, always in the background criticizing and trying to direct until the day she died. Eleanor gradually broke free of this, but it wasn’t until they were in the White House that she really started blossoming.

Eleanor and FDR with Anna and James c. 1908 (source)

Eleanor and FDR with Anna and James c. 1908 (source)

Eleanor and Franklin covers Eleanor’s childhood, her life as a young wife and mother, her role as Franklin emerged as a leader in politics, and their life together at the White House. Lash uses Eleanor’s correspondence and published writings to show how she dealt with becoming a public personality, raising her children with her mother-in-law constantly in the background, Franklin’s infidelity, and finally the difficult years in the White House where she made the “office” of First Lady something it had never been before.

She was criticized as much as she was loved. She often felt that it was her duty to tell Franklin things that others around him would not say, in a way to be his conscience. Many thought she was butting in where she didn’t belong. By the time Franklin was president, they no longer had the traditional marriage. She said to intimate friends that she was no longer in love with him, but she served him in love. It was a role that many women couldn’t have tolerated. There were other women in his life that gave him space to relax and laugh. Eleanor couldn’t give him that, but she gave what she could, a view to the world that he didn’t have. She was an advocate for women, African-Americans, youth, soldiers, anyone who asked. There were times when she was taken advantage of. She knew this, but had to help if she could.

The book is dense. It is filled with details but is very readable. Expect to give it some time. It is a must read if you want to understand Eleanor Roosevelt, but also gives you a different perspective of FDR’s presidency. Eleanor and Franklin ends with Franklin’s death in the spring of 1945. Mr. Lash has written a sequel Eleanor: The Years Alone. I haven’t read it yet, but you can be sure I will.

(Originally published on SSS News & Notes.)

Zewditu I – Empress of Ethiopia

Empress Zewditu (source)

Empress Zewditu (source)

Zewditu I, Empress of Ethiopia, was the first internationally recognized female head of state in Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries. She reigned from 1916 to 1930 and was the first Ethiopian Empress regnant since Makeda, the legendary Queen of Sheba, as well as the last Empress regnant.

Born on April 29, 1876, Zewditu was given the name Askala Maryam at her baptism in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church. Her parents were Negus (King) Menelik of Shewa and his consort Weyziro (Lady) Abechi, although, she was raised primarily by her father and his consort Baffana, because of her mother’s death when she was young. She had an excellent relationship with her father and also with the woman her father married, and who became Empress, Taytu Betul. Menelik had three acknowledged children, Zewditu, her older sister Shewa Regga, and a son who died in infancy.

Beginning in 1886 at the age of ten, Zewditu had three political marriages which were short lived, beginning with Ras Araya Selassie Yohannes, heir of Emperor Yohannes IV. This was an attempt to cement an alliance between the two rulers which didn’t last, but Araya Selassie died two years later without any children by Zewditu and she returned to her father’s home. In spite of the conflict, Yohannes had high regard for Zewditu and sent her home with a valuable gift of cattle.

The next two marriages ended in death and divorce. In 1900, Taytu arranged a marriage between her nephew, Gugsa Wale, and Zewditu. Gugsa Welle was a poet and book lover, and the marriage appears to have been happy. Zewditu had no surviving children, although she had a daughter by her second marriage who died in 1895 at age four.

Menelik II (source)

Menelik II (source)

In 1899, Yohannis IV died at the Battle of Metemma and Menelik took the Emperor’s throne as Menelik II, making Zewditu a possible fourth in the line of succession. The first two candidates were deemed unsuitable by Menelik, the third was Lij Iyasu, the son of Menelik’s oldest daughter, followed by Zewditu. After having a stroke in 1908, Menelik named Lij Iyasu as his heir, but because he was only 13 he also appointed Tessema Nadew as regent. However, Empress Taytu undermined his choice, hoping to substitute Zewditu or her husband Ras Gugsa Welle, Taytu’s nephew, as successor.

After a series of strokes, Menelik became paralyzed and Iyasu was acknowledged as heir, but he wasn’t considered the best choice for Emperor. He was impulsive, egocentric and prone to be cruel. After Tessema Nadew died in 1911, Iyasu refused another regent. During the next few years, there were several coup attempts as well as an attempt to poison Iyasu. Finally, in December of 1913 Menelik died, but when informed of the death, Iyasu continued playing a mock battle game. He also refused to allow any form of public mourning for the Emperor.

Empress Taytu and Zewditu were both immediately expelled from the palace, but it was a month before word of the death made its way to the aristocracy. Iyasu was uninterested in the day-to-day running of the government, which continued under his grandfather’s cabinet of ministers and Fitawrarri Hapte Giorgis Denagde, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and minister of war. Many of his activities were deemed dangerous to the future of the country, especially during WWI, and his frequent trips away from the capital gave the ministers time to plot his downfall. On September 27, 1916, Iyasu was deposed in favor of Zewditu and she was proclaimed Empress by the nobility and the church.

Although Zewditu was proclaimed “Empress, Queen of Kings, Elect of God, and Lion of Judah,” she initially wasn’t allowed to exercise power alone. Her cousin Ras Tafari Makonnen was appointed heir to the throne and regent. Also, distrustful of the Empress Dowager Taytu and her relatives, the aristocracy forced Zewditu to separate from her husband. Gugsa was sent to the north and eventually given the governorship of Beghemidir, although he was denied the title of king.

Taytu Betul c. 1886 (source)

Taytu Betul c. 1886 (source)

Iyasu escaped arrest and went into hiding. His father King Michael of Wollo raised an army and declared war, but was defeated quickly and made to pay homage to Zewditu. Iyasu was found a few months later, and imprisoned at Sellae. Zewditu made sure that both Iyasu and his father were treated with dignity and kept in luxury, although Iyasu always referred to her as his “poor naive aunt” for her kindness.

Zewditu’s reign was a constant struggle between the reforming impulses of Ras Tafari and the more conservative wishes of Zewditu, Fitawrarri,the cabinet and the Orthodox Church. In the face of the colonizing of the African continent, Ras Tafari believed that modernization was the key to remaining independent. The conservatives disagreed and took a more isolationist stance. In many ways Zewditu was caught between the two. She was racked with guilt from taking the throne. Devoted to her father, she saw Iyasu’s reign as his stated wish and felt she had gone against that.

As time went on, the conservatives, who had put Ras Tafari in the position as regent, pressed him to consult Zewditu before instituting reforms. They also put pressure on her to resist him. Eventually, Ras Tafari had had enough, and with the support of the Mahil Safari military division, forced her to disband the cabinet of ministers and allow him to put his supporters in their places. He then was able to put reforms into place such as the abolition of slavery and entry into the League of Nations.

These reforms were of little interest to Zewditu who was a pious woman. She retreated into a life of prayer and penance. She was responsible for building several churches, hosted a visit by the Patriarch of Alexandria, and visited the Empress Dowager Taytu often. By 1928, there was little power left to the conservatives and a small uprising was unsuccessful. Zewditu was compelled to grant Tafari the title of Negus, and he was in effect the ruler of Ethiopia.

One final attempt was made when Ras Gugsa Welle raised an army against Negus Tafari and marched for Addis Ababa. Zewditu frantically tried to get him to back down, but he refused. Negus Tafari sent an army north and they met on the Anchiem plain on March 31, 1930. Tafari, now having access to modern military methods, flew planes over Ras Gugsa’s army, first to drop leaflets declaring Gugsa a rebel and promising excommunication from the church for those who participated, and second to drop a bomb. By the end of the day, Ras Gugsa’s army was defeated and he was dead.

Two days later, on April 2, Empress Zewditu also died. She suffered from diabetes and at the time was ill with typhoid, however, speculation about the cause of her death continues today. She was fasting for Lent which may have weakened her, then she was submerged in cold holy water to reduce her fever. Some say she died of shock from this treatment, others say that she died of grief when she was informed of the death of her husband. Still others say that she was poisoned as soon as victory was assured. However, there is no firm evidence to back up these theories and later her Swiss doctor gave her cause of death as diabetes.

Regardless of how she died, Her Imperial Majesty, Empress Zewditu, was greatly mourned and remembered for her piety, generosity, and devotion to her father’s memory. She was also the only monarch in over a century to be given a state funeral after which she was laid to rest in the Masoleum Church of St. Mary Ba-eta with her father and Empress Taytu.

Empress Zewditu I on her coronation day with Crown Prince Ras Tafari Makonnen (source)

Empress Zewditu I on her coronation day with Crown Prince Ras Tafari Makonnen (source)


Empress Zewditu – Queen of Kings
Zewditu, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia