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.

Resources

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

3 thoughts on “Shirley Graham Du Bois – Political Activist, Composer, Playwright, and Author

  1. Your post briefly mentions famed photographer, author and bon-vivant Carl Van Vechten. If you are interested, can I respectfully suggest a wonderful and recently-published biography of Van Vechten by Dr. Emily Bernard?

    • Absolutely! Because I am interested in late 19th and early 20th century, I see a lot of his photographs and would love to know more about him. I’ll check it out. I’m sure I can find it with Ms. Bernard’s name. Thanks Erik!

  2. Pingback: Shirley Graham Du Bois – Political Activist, Composer, Playwright, and Author | Rogues & Vagabonds

Tell us what you think.