An African Princess Who Stood Unafraid Among Nazis

Her autobiography is a one-of-a-kind perspective of an educated, empowered, world-traveling daughter of a royal family, which no one wanted to publish until now.

Fatima Massaquoi, Arthur Massaquoi, and Momolu Massaquoi, Hamburg, Germany, ca. 1924.
Fatima Massaquoi, Arthur Massaquoi, and Momolu Massaquoi, Hamburg, Germany, ca. 1924. Collection of Vivian Seton

Between 1939 and 1946, Fatima Massaquoi penned one of the earliest known autobiographies by an African woman. But few outside of Liberian circles were aware of it until this week, when Palgrave McMillian published The Autobiography of an African Princess, edited by two historians and the author’s daughter.

The book follows Massaquoi, born the daughter of the King of Gallinas of Southern Sierra Leone in 1904, to Liberia, Nazi Germany and the segregated American South, where she wrote her memoirs while enrolled at Tennessee’s Fisk University.

She died in 1978, and her story could have died with her.

For the most part, it did. That is, until Konrad Tuchscherer, St. John’s University specialist in African history and language, stumbled upon it on microfilm while conducting research.

“I just thought it was the most amazing piece I had ever seen. I was very interested in the history of the Massaquoi family because they had such an important role in spreading the Vai script,” he told The Root.

Ultimately, his interest in the tale took on significance beyond the proliferation of that particular ancient West African written language. “It’s evidence that not only was there this thriving literary tradition among African people, but it was one that included women,” he says. “Fatima is a granddaughter of a queen, a literate and empowered woman.”

Determined to share the story, Tuchscherer hunted for contact information for Massaquoi’s only daughter, Vivian Seton, who lives in Maryland. “I told her, ‘I read your mother’s autobiography and I want to be part of having it to be published.’ “

Seton immediately agreed, insisting that her mother had predicted, on her deathbed, that one day “a man would call” and would want to publish her story. She joined Tuchscherer and Virginia State University historian Arthur Abraham, helping to coordinate a transcription and translation of the original text, and to find a publisher, which Tuchscher says was the most difficult part of the process.

“People were reluctant to take it on, because they wanted to rewrite it. Even academic publishers didn’t know the value of this story,” he says.