Lorenz Bell Graham (27 Jan. 1902 – 11 Sept. 1989), missionary, educator, social worker, and author was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, the third child of the Rev. David Andrew Graham, a Methodist minister, and Etta Bell Graham. His father’s pastorates took the family from New Orleans to Detroit, Indianapolis, Chicago, Nashville, Colorado Springs, and Spokane. He attended the University of Washington and the University of California at Los Angeles.

Teaching in AfricaGraham at his desk

While a student at UCLA, Graham learned about the need for missionary teachers in Liberia, West Africa and felt he was called there to serve. He left for Liberia in 1924 to teach at Monrovia College, a Christian boys’ school.

Going to Africa changed Lorenz Graham’s life. He realized he had gone with a false concept of what African people were like. He decried the fact that all he had read or seenhad described Africans in stereotypical terms as savages, at best stupid and amusing, at worse vicious and depraved. While in Africa he decided that he would become a writer and write stories that would describe Africans realistically as he was coming to know them and their lives.

In Liberia he met Ruth Morris, the young woman who would become his life partner. Lorenz and Ruth, a Christian missionary teacher, shared their dreams for the future, both desiring that their lives would be devoted to service and to humanity. Lorenz suffered from serious bouts of malaria and was eventually forced to return to the United States.

Starting to Write

Graham arrived in New York City in 1928 when Harlem was in its Renaissance. He felt strongly committed to pursue a career in writing. He enrolled in writing courses at Columbia University School of Journalism, worked on his manuscripts that he started in Africa, and associated with other promising writers and poets. He had a minor acting role in the Broadway play Harlem. Some publishers were willing to read his manuscripts, but invariably they rejected his writing because they felt readers would not be interested in literature portraying Africans as hard working and moral people as he portrayed them.

Lorenz married Ruth Morris in August 1929 in Richmond, Virginia, just at the onset of the Great Depression. The couple settled in Virginia where Lorenz took on numerous jobs while earning his Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences at Virginia Union University in Richmond. He later did graduate work at New York University and UCLA.

Their five children provided many joys as well as challenges through the years, as Lorenz Graham struggled to provide adequately for his family and realize his ambition of becoming a writer. For the next three decades the serious business of earning a living led him in several fields: educational advisor in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), manager of a housing project, social worker, and probation officer. The family moved from Virginia to New York in 1942 primarily to get out of the segregated South and give the children better educational opportunities.

Publication and Acceptance

But writing about Africa was in Graham’s blood. His first published book, How God Fix Jonah (1946), was a compilation of Bible stories beautifully portrayed in the idiom of West Africa as he had heard them through the African storyteller. With a foreword by W. E. B. Du Bois, How God Fix Jonah was hailed for its rich rhythms and complex cultural texture. That same year Graham’s first novel, Tales of Momolu (1946), was published providing American children with realistic stories depicting the life of a young African boy. When a newspaper reviewer wrote that an American reader would recognize the African boy as “just another fellow,” Graham was ecstatic. He knew he had achieved his purpose of showing American boys and girls how similar African children are in their joys, hopes, and dreams.

Struggling to send his children to college on a social worker’s salary, he continued to write books, primarily for young people, to convey his belief that “people are people”—whether white or black, born in the United States, Africa, Europe, or Asia. Through his writings he conveyed the message that people are basically alike; they have the same needs, emotions, and desires and want basic human rights and social justice.

The Grahams moved to Los Angeles, California in 1957 where he was drawn by the desire to find work writing in Hollywood. His first big success as a writer, however, came with the publication of South Town (1958), a novel portraying the life of a poor, hard-working black family in the rural South who experienced racism and violence, yet remained hopeful that someday the struggle would be over. It had taken 12 years of rejections from publishers, however, because publishers repeatedly told him that the American public would not accept a story that did not conform to the popular images of blacks as poor, violent, and hopeless. South Town was awarded the Child Study Association of America Award (1958) and this encouraged him to write three succeeding novels over the next two decades. North Town (1965), Whose Town? (1969), and Return to South Town (1976) chronicle David Williams’ journey from adolescence to manhood, moving from the South to the North and back to the South, while finally realizing his dream of becoming a doctor.

These novels made Lorenz Graham a true pioneer in the field of literature for young adults with his sensitive portrayal of his characters showing how they led everyday lives bravely overcoming injustice and racism while determined to have a better future.

Graham received national recognition for his works. He published two other books on Africa, I, Momolu (1966) about the boy coming of age in Africa, and a touching picture book, Song of The Boat (1975), about Momolu helping his father make a canoe. He traveled across the country to research and write John Brown: A Cry For Freedom (1980), a book for the young adult chronicling Brown’s view of the destructive aspects of slavery and his struggle for social justice.

Later Life

Throughout the years of working and writing, Lorenz and his wife, Ruth, were actively involved in civil rights and human rights issues. In the 1960’s they risked their lives in the innermost regions of Mississippi as voter registration workers. Graham lectured throughout the United States and became a popular faculty member at California State College Pomona, California. He was an active member of Poets, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN) International and served as president of the Los Angeles chapter.

Lorenz and Ruth Graham became world travelers. They went to Haiti as volunteer teachers and traveled throughout the Caribbean. They lectured at universities and other institutions in Europe, Asia and Africa where they were often saluted as ambassadors of peace. In 1974 they were invited to the People’s Republic of China during the celebration of that government’s twenty-fifth anniversary, along with Lorenz’s sister, renowned writer Shirley Graham Du Bois, widow of W. E. B. Du Bois. In 1987, at the age of 85, Lorenz Graham was a guest speaker at a symposium on children’s literature at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, a crowning experience in his life and career.

Lorenz Graham’s works brought him numerous awards, including the Follett Award, Martin Luther King, Jr. Award for Service, and an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Virginia Union University.

Lorenz Graham died in 1989 in Los Angeles County at the age of 87. He left a legacy of commitment, service, and a fervent belief that, through hope, understanding and the power of God’s love, we will all come to know that “people are people wherever you go.”

Further Reading

Lorenz Graham’s papers are housed in the Kerlan Collection, University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Graham, Lorenz. Something About the Author, Autobiography Series, Vol. 5. Pp. 111-145. Gale Research Co. (1988)

Obituary: The New York Times, 14 September 1989.