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Lorenz Graham Biography - Grew Up amidst Racial Prejudice, Sailed for Africa, Publishers Reject His African Stories

town university children black

1902-1989

Author

In the 1930s, when Lorenz Graham began writing stories, black characters in children's literature were typically portrayed in negative stereotypes. Graham changed that. In a writing career that spanned more than 50 years, Graham introduced authentic black characters into literature for children and young adults. His collection of biblical tales, How God Fix Jonah, written in West-African English, has become a classic of the genre. His "Town" series of novels for young adults—among the first in this genre to confront racism when they were published beginning in the late 1950s—have been rediscovered by a new generation of students and educators. Graham's dual careers as a social worker and educator inspired his writings on racial issues, black adolescents, and parent-child relationships.

Grew Up amidst Racial Prejudice

Lorenz Bell Graham was born on January 27, 1902, in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of David Andrew and Etta (Bell) Graham. David Graham was an African-Methodist-Episcopal (AME) minister who moved his family north soon after Lorenz was born. Lorenz's sister Shirley taught him to read and he entered the Doolittle School in Chicago as a six-year-old second-grader.

Soon the family moved to Nashville, Tennessee. It was Graham's first experience in a segregated city and school, and he was astonished to find that his new black friends were afraid of whites. Then a gang of white boys hit Graham in the head with a rock. When his father reported the attack, the police responded with their own racial epithets. Graham learned to be afraid.

The Grahams always assumed that their children would attend college. However their next move was to a town in which the black schools ended with the ninth grade. This, in addition to Graham's poor grades and his new-found fear of whites, convinced David Graham to move his family out of the South, first to Colorado Springs, Colorado, and then to Spokane, Washington. Graham's schoolwork improved significantly and he discovered the public library.

Sailed for Africa

As a student at the University of Washington in Seattle, Graham heard from an AME bishop about the need for teacher-missionaries in West Africa. In 1924, during his junior year at the University of California, Los Angeles, Graham left college to teach at a boys' missionary school in Monrovia, Liberia. In 1973 he told Elementary English that he went there "believing that I would be able to help the poor benighted Africans, that I could bring light to the dark land, and that I could open the door to a new life for the ignorant people. I was due for a rude awakening." His four years in Liberia were life-changing. He decided to "write books which would make Americans know that Africans were people."

After acquiring malaria in Liberia, Graham spent several months recuperating in France, where he quickly learned to speak the language. Graham found that in France, unlike Liberia or the United States, his race was of no significance.

When his commitment in Liberia ended, Graham moved to New York City, where his sister Shirley was studying and writing for children. The black literary and artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance was at its height. Graham took classes at Columbia University and the City College of New York, lectured about his African experiences, and immersed himself in the literary life. He appeared in the play Harlem, which enjoyed a 20-week run on Broadway.

Graham had met fellow missionary and teacher Ruth Morris in Liberia. They married on August 20, 1929, and subsequently had five children. The family settled in Richmond, Virginia, where Graham finally completed his bachelor's degree in social studies at Virginia Union University.

Publishers Reject His African Stories

Numerous publishers rejected Graham's African-based stories, telling him that the American public was not interested in Africans who were portrayed as intelligent human beings. They thought that his African and black American characters were too much like white people.

It took Graham more than 15 years to find a publisher for How God Fix Jonah. This collection of 21 biblical stories was written in the style of African story-telling and in the English dialect spoken in Liberia. The stories were intended to be read aloud: "Long time past // Before you papa live // Before him papa live // Before him pa's papa live—// Long time past // Before them big tree live // before them big tree's papa live—// That time God live."

The title story opens with: "Jonah was a prophet. // God put Him hand on Jonah // But Jonah head be hard. // Jonah head be hard too much. // Lord God Almighty can fix the thing. // Hear how He fix Jonah." In the story of David and Goliath, Goliath asks David "Do you mommy know you out?" Shirley Graham's husband, noted historian W. E. B. Du Bois, wrote the introduction and the book became a favorite in black churches and Sunday schools around the country.

Some of these stories—including David He No Fear; a retelling of the Christmas story called Every Man Heart Lay Down; the story of Noah told in God Wash the World and Start Again; and the story of the prodigal son, Hongry Catch the Foolish Boy—were published as individual editions during the 1970s. A 2000 edition of How God Fix Jonah included two previously unpublished stories. It was an American Library Association Notable Children's Book for 2001 and Booklist named it one of the top ten religion books for youth. How God Fix Jonah had become a classic, aimed at adults and scholars, as well as young people.

At a Glance …

Born Lorenz Bell Graham on January 27, 1902, in New Orleans, LA; died September 11, 1989, in West Covina, CA; married Ruth Morris, 1929; children: Lorenz, Jr., Jean, Joyce, Ruth, Charles. Education: Attended the University of Washington, Seattle, the University of California, Los Angeles, City University, New York, and Columbia University; Virginia Union University, BA, 1936; Columbia University, MSW, 1954. Religion: Disciples of Christ. Politics: Democrat.

Career: Monrovia College, Liberia, teacher/missionary, 1924-28; Foreign Mission Board, National Baptist Convention, lecturer and fund-raiser, 1929-32; Richmond, VA, teacher, 1930-35; U. S. Civilian Conservation Corps, camp educational adviser, 1936-42; Housing Authority, Newport News, VA, manager of public housing, 1942-46; Long Island, NY, realtor and building contractor, 1946-49; writer, 1946-80; Queens (NY) Federation of Churches, social worker, 1950-57; Los Angeles County, probation officer, 1957-67; California State Polytechnic College (now University), Pomona, lecturer, 1970-78.

Selected Memberships: P.E.N. International; Authors League of America; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; U.S./China Peoples Friendship Association; U.S.A./Soviet Friendship Society.

Selected awards: Association for Study of Negro Life and History Award, 1959; Los Angeles City Council Award, 1966; Southern California Council on Literature for Children and Young People, award for significant contribution to the field of literature for young people, 1968; California Association of Teachers of English, citation, 1973; honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, Virginia Union University, 1983.

Graham's first volume of African coming-of-age stories—Tales of Momolu—also was published in 1946. As a teacher in Liberia, Graham had encouraged a group of African students to become doctors and nurses. He was chastised by his superiors for "over-stimulating" the children. Twenty years later in Norfolk, Virginia, Graham was treated for malaria by one of those children, Dr. Momolu Tugbah, who lent his name to the title character. One of these stories, "Song of the Boat," was republished in its own edition in 1975.

During the 1950s Graham was hired to write adaptations for Classics Illustrated comic books. The Story of Jesus was the first Classics Illustrated special edition. The Ten Commandments was promoted along with the film starring Charlton Heston and it earned Graham a special citation from the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation.

"Town" Series Became a Popular Success

Graham's graduate studies in sociology at Columbia University and New York University influenced his young adult novels. However, it took 12 years to find a publisher for South Town. Graham's characters did not conform to black stereotypes. One editor wrote that Graham had failed to distinguish between the lifestyles of Southern blacks and whites. Nevertheless, South Town earned Graham the Charles W. Follett Award when it was published in 1958, the Child Study Association of America Award in 1959, and the Boston Globe-Horn Book and Children's Book Showcase awards in 1976. The "Town" series became Graham's best-known work. These four novels focus on the courage and determination of black Americans struggling to overcome violence and racial oppression. Graham's message was that all people should be judged as individuals fighting against hatred and evil and working toward racial reconciliation.

At the age of 16, lead character David Williams is an ambitious young man who wants to become a doctor to help right the wrongs of South Town society. However racial oppression and terrorism force the Williams family to move to North Town. In the second novel, titled North Town, David is isolated in a mostly-white high school and becomes cynical about his own future and his dreams of racial justice. Whose Town?, published in 1969, deals with the racial unrest of the 1960s. Like Graham himself, David is listening to both militant black leaders and the more moderate voices of family and church. Whose Town? earned first prize from Book World in 1969. Return to South Town documents the successes and failures of the civil rights movement in the South. David says: "You know I used to be afraid of what white folks could do, but if I've learned anything, I've learned that even the meanest of them, the most rebbish, are people too. They aren't giants and they aren't great brains. Most of them are small and weak. I know I've got what it takes to deal with them. They can't hurt me."

Poet Maya Angelou praised the "Town" series on Dr. Ruth Graham Siegrist's Web site, Graham Books: "South Town and North Town were the bookends to a small library which I used to raise a teenage African American boy.… The Graham books were so accessible that I noticed those were the only two books my son refused to lend out and in fact kept privately secreted under his bed."

Stories Wrote Novelettes and Plays

Graham also wrote in a number of other genres. His four novelettes for adolescents were influenced by his careers as a social worker and a Los Angeles probation officer. The publisher of Runaway objected to Graham's depiction of a black ghetto girl writing beautiful poetry. As always, Graham refused to make any changes. A number of his short stories were included in the four Directions textbooks that he helped to compile.

John Brown: A Cry for Freedom became one of Graham's best-known works. In this well-documented biography—as well as in his earlier text for a picture book recounting Brown's historic attack on the arsenal at Harper's Ferry—Graham presented the white abolitionist martyr, not as a fanatic, but as a major force in American history. In 1969 Graham sang an accompaniment in sound recordings of excerpts from John Brown's last speech and from the Dred Scott U. S. Supreme Court decision.

Graham wrote plays for schools, colleges, and amateur theater groups. During the 1970s he lectured at California State Polytechnic College in Pomona. Ruth Morris Graham wrote several children's stories herself and the Grahams remained active in the civil rights movement. One of Graham's last public appearances was at a symposium on children's literature in South Africa in 1987. Lorenz Graham died of cancer on September 11, 1989, in West Covina, California. His manuscripts are deposited in the Kerlan Collection of the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and the North Carolina Central University Library in Durham.

Selected writings

Fiction

How God Fix Jonah, Reynal and Hitchcock, 1946; rev. ed., Boyds Mills Press, 2000.

Tales of Momolu, Reynal and Hitchcock, 1946.

(Adapter) The Story of Jesus, Gilberton, 1955.

(Adapter) The Ten Commandments, Gilberton, 1956.

Every Man Heart Lay Down, Crowell, 1970; Boyds Mills Press, 1993.

David He No Fear, Crowell, 1971.

God Wash the World and Start Again, Crowell, 1971.

Carolina Cracker, Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

Detention Center, Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

John Brown's Raid: A Picture History of the Attack on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, Scholastic, 1972.

Runaway, Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

Hongry Catch the Foolish Boy, Crowell, 1973.

John Brown: A Cry for Freedom, Crowell, 1980.

"Town" Series

South Town, Follett, 1958; Boyds Mills Press, 2003.

North Town, Crowell, 1965; Boyds Mills Press, 2003.

Whose Town? Crowell, 1969; Boyds Mills Press, 2003.

Return to South Town, Crowell, 1976; Boyds Mills Press, 2003.

Nonfiction

(Contributor and co-compiler) Directions 1-4, Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

Sources

Books

"Lorenz (Bell) Graham," in St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd ed. St. James Press, 1999.

"Lorenz (Bell) Graham," in Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed., Gale, 2002.

Williams, Ora, "Lorenz Graham," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 76, Gale Group, 1988. pp. 57-66.

Periodicals

Booklist, October 1, 2000, p. 353; October 1, 2001, p. 333.

Connections, Winter 2004, p. 2.

Elementary English, February 1973, pp. 185-88.

Publishers Weekly, June 14, 2003, p. 78.

On-line

Graham Books, www.grahambooks.com (October 21, 2004).

"Lorenz B. Graham Papers, 1947-1980," University of Minnesota Libraries, http://special.lib.umn.edu/findaid/html/clrc/clrc0135.html(October 21, 2004).

"Lorenz (Bell) Graham," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (October 21, 2004).

"Writer Continues Literary Legacy," Sacramento Observer, www.sacobserver.com/soul/poetry_literature/061504/ruth_graham_siegrist.shtml (October 21, 2004).

—Margaret Alic

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