Instantly my eyes were opened to the fact that the education meted out to [African people] had … taught us to despise ourselves … Our immediate need was an education which would instill to us a love of country, pride of race, an enthusiast for the black man’s capabilities and a genuine admiration for Africa’s wonderful art work.
Adelaide Casely-Hayford in a 1922 editorial.
Today’s black history month stretches sight on the charismatic and influential Adelaide Casely-Hayford who fearlessly advocated for women and girls’ right and popularized the idea of Pan-Africanism. Her commitment to public service ensured the improvement of conditions for both men and women. But most importantly, she created a sensation by rocking a traditional African attire in 1925 to attend a reception in honor of the Prince of Wales. This was done in accordance of representing her national identity and cultural heritage.
Adelaide Smith was born on 2 June 1868 to an affluential creole family in Freetown, British Sierra Leone. During her lifetime, she was well distinguished as an advocate, an activist for cultural nationalism, an educator, a fiction writer, and an astute feminist.
Her father, William Smith Jr was of English and royal Fanti ancestry, originally from the Gold Coast. Casely-Hayford’s mother Anne Spilsbury was also of English, Jamaican, Maroon, and Sierra Leone Liberated African Ancestry. Therefore, Casely-Hayford was born into a mixed family.
The second youngest of her parents’ seven children, she spent the better part of her early life in England. Her father had retired in 1872 on a benefit of 666 pounds sterling. Adelaide attended Jersey Ladies’ College (now Jersey College for Girls). Similar to many other Sierra Leonean women who were raised in a more elitist society, Casely-Hayford was deeply influenced by Victorian values.
At the age of 17, Casely-Hayford went to Stuttgart, Germany, in order to study music at the Stuttgart Conservatory. Shortly after she returned to England, she and her sister opened a boarding home for African bachelors living in the country as students or workers.
In a maiden speech in 1905, Adelaide emphasized on the importance African women could have in social and political development. This was to improve trust and confidence in black women around the world. Two years later, she returned to the Gold Coast (now Ghana).
Casely-Hayford married famous West African author Joseph Ephraim Casely-Hayford after a courtship that lasted only a few weeks. This marriage was significant for Adelaide and may have given her a deeper insight into African culture and influenced her transformation into a cultural nationalist. They had a daughter named Gladys who was born in 1904 with a malformed hip joint. Therefore, she took her daughter to England for medical treatment and remained there for three years. Their daughter Gladys Casely-Hayford would go on to become a well-known Creole poet. After her divorce to Joseph Casely-Hayford in 1909, she relocated to Sierra Leone where she would dedicate the rest of her life to educating African girls.
Adelaide Casely-Hayford and her sisters headed back to Sierra Leone. Already armed with the ideas of racial pride and co-operation advanced by Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), she joined the Ladies Division of the Freetown Branch. She also rose to become a leading African feminist, using her speeches and the pen to challenge male supremacy in Africa, and to support women’s rights.
In 1915, she delivered a speech capturing the “rights of women and Christian marriage”. Furthermore, she stressed on her vision for increasing women’s rights. Her passion for African excellence and the inclusion of women elevated her to be the President of the UNIA. However, due to an unresolved conflict between the association and her vocational school, she resigned from the association in June 1920.
She gave public lectures in the United States, challenging the racial American notions about Africa.
The vocational institution she established in Freetown served as a platform where girls learnt about their cultural background and instill a sense of national pride. The Girls’ Vocational School opened in the Smith family home with 14 pupils.
As principal, Casely-Hayford pictured her students to wear traditional and native attires to school. However, this proposal was rejected by the parents of these students. The school was the first of many to offer educational opportunities for girls in the country. In addition, the school also taught young girls African history and how they could be independent thinkers and economically independent. Her vision was to raise a society of girls with the required confidence and leadership skills to become future leaders in Sierra Leone and Africa.
She was awarded the MBE medal in 1949 for her contributions to the people of Sierra Leone. Till date, she is remembered for her impact on the education of girls and how she stood for women’s empowerment. Her short story “Mista Courifer” was featured in Langston Hughes’ African Treasury, which was a collection of short works by African writers. The project was published in United States.
She died in Freetown on 24 January 1960, at the accomplished age of 91.
Adelaide Casely-Hayford would forever be a symbol of reference for girls and women in Africa.