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.


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

10 Women Who Refused to Give Up Their Seats Before Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks c. 1955 (source)

Rosa Parks c. 1955 (source)

When Rosa Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on the bus, the community didn’t hesitate to rally around her and begin the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She was a pillar in the community with an unimpeachable character. She was also an activist with experience in the civil rights movement, and the perfect person to give a face to the struggle.

Rosa was seated in the “colored section” of the bus when the “white section” filled up and the driver told her to move. She refused to obey and was subsequently arrested. Her action prompted the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She was an active civil rights worker and at the time secretary of the Montgomery Chapter of the NAACP. Although her court case became bogged down in state courts, her action, the boycott, and the successful case of Browder v. Gayle, finally brought about desegregation of the city’s bus system.

This post is intended in no way to take away from what Mrs. Parks did. Rather it is to highlight the fact that there were many brave women who took similar actions.

Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, Claudette Colvin and Mary Louise Smith

Each of these four women were arrested during 1955 for refusing to give up their seats on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Of these four women, Claudette Colvin is probably the most well-known. On March 2, Claudette was forcibly removed from a bus for refusing to give her seat to a white man. She was 15 years old, a student at Booker T. Washington High School, and an active member of the NAACP’s Youth Council. Initially, it was thought that her case might be used to organize a boycott, but when they discovered that Claudette was pregnant the idea was put on hold.

However, after the boycott began, following Parks arrest, attorneys Fred Gray, E.D. Nixon, and Clifford Durr decided to initiate a civil action suit separate from Parks’ case. When Browder, McDonald, Colvin, and Smith agreed to be plaintiffs, they filed Browder v. Gayle in District Court. Another woman, Jeanette Reese, was initially part of the suit but withdrew because of intimidation from the white community. On June 13, 1956, the district court ruled that the bus segregation was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment, and the decision was affirmed by the US Supreme Court on November 13, 1956.

Sarah Keys

In 1952, Sarah Keys was a WAC private headed home on furlough from Fort Dix, New Jersey. The bus was integrated; the decision in Morgan v. Virginia had declared Jim Crow laws inoperable on interstate buses in 1946. When Sarah boarded a Carolina Trailways bus in Washington DC, she had no difficulties, but when a new driver took over in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina he demanded that she move to the “colored section” of the bus and give her seat to a white marine.

When she refused to give up her seat, the driver directed all the passengers to another bus and prevented Sarah from boarding. An altercation resulted and Sarah was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. She was kept in jail overnight without being allowed to contact anyone, convicted and charged a fine of $25.

Sarah and her father contacted the NAACP and were referred to Dovey Johnson Roundtree and her law partner Julius Winfield Robertson. Roundtree had been a WAC recruiter in the Deep South and had a similar experience in 1943, in Florida. It was a long battle, but eventually, on November 7, 1955, the Interstate Commerce Commission issued a ruling in Sarah’s favor, finding that forced segregation violated the Interstate Commerce Act.

Sadly, in his position as Chairman of the Commission, J. Monroe Johnson (from South Carolina), failed to enforce the ruling. It wasn’t until after the violence during the Freedom Riders campaign that the Commission was forced to implement their ruling by US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

Irene Morgan

Unlike Rosa Parks, Irene Morgan wasn’t trained in non-violent civil disobedience, so when she was told to move to give up her seat to a white couple, she fought back physically. On July 16, 1944, Irene was seated in the “colored section” of a Greyhound bus when a white couple boarded. Irene and the woman seated next to her were told to move further back. When she refused, the angry driver drove to the jail in the town of Saluda, Virginia, where she was presented with an arrest warrant.

Irene tore up the arrest warrant. When an officer tried to grab her, she kicked him in “a very bad place.” She clawed and tore the shirt of another officer. When she was finally subdued and dragged off of the bus, she was charged with resisting arrest and violating Virginia’s segregation laws. She pleaded guilty of resisting arrest and paid a $100 fine. However, she pleaded not guilty to the violation of the segregation laws and refused to pay the $10 fine.

Eventually, her case, Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia, made it to the Supreme Court, with a legal team led by Thurgood Marshall, and won. On June 3, 1946, the US Supreme Court ruled that segregation in interstate travel was unconstitutional. Although the ruling was ignored in much of the South, the Freedom Riders paid tribute to Irene, “Get on the bus, sit anyplace, ‘Cause Irene Morgan won her case. You don’t have to ride Jim Crow.”

Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells c. 1893 (source)

Ida B. Wells c. 1893 (source)

On May 4, 1884, a conductor on a Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Company train asked Ida Wells to give up her first class seat to a white man and move to the “Jim Crow” car, which also happened to be the smoking car. The 1875 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or color on public transport, but this was in Memphis, Tennessee, and several companies ignored the ruling, especially in the south where they could get away with it. (This was before the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision of “separate but equal.”)

Ida refused to give up her seat saying that the other car was a smoker and she was in the ladies’ car. The conductor tried to remove her and she held on to the seat and bit the back of his hand. He then went for help from two other men and the three of them succeeded in dragging her out of the train.

Ida hired an attorney, who was paid off by the company, then hired another attorney who won the case in the local circuit court with an award of $500. The company appealed, however, and the decision was overturned by the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth (source)

Sojourner Truth (source)

In 1865, Sojourner Truth refused to give up her seat and challenged the segregated horse car system in Washington DC. Usually drivers refused to stop when she wanted to ride, even when they did, they insisted that she ride in the Jim Crow car. Sojourner complained to the president of the car system and the Jim Crow car was removed.

Once when a driver refused to stop, she began yelling “I want to ride!” It startled so many people that traffic came to a stop and she was able to get on the horse car. When told to go ride up where the horses were, outside the actual car, she refused. She told him she wasn’t from Virginia or Maryland, but New York, and knew the law and wouldn’t be intimidated!

On another occasion she was slammed up against a door. Reporting the incident got the driver dismissed. Sojourner continued her riding campaign, encouraging others to do the same. According to Margaret Washington, “She acted boldly, and with flair. She knew that because her name was known, she could focus attention on the illegality and injustice of segregation. She repeated her ride-ins often enough and over a long enough period of time to drive home her point.”

Elizabeth Jennings Graham
Elizabeth Jennings Graham c. 1895 (source)

Elizabeth Jennings Graham c. 1895 (source)

Elizabeth Jennings was a schoolteacher and the church organist at the First Colored American Congregational Church in New York City, and on July 16th, 1864 she was running late. She and her friend, Sarah Adams, hailed a horse-drawn streetcar and didn’t notice if there was a sign saying that “Negro Persons” were allowed on the car. The conductor told them to get off and Elizabeth refused telling him he was an “impudent fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to church.”

Sarah got off, but Elizabeth clung to the window frame when he tried to force her off. The conductor drove on, but stopped when he saw a police officer. When the officer boarded, he pushed Elizabeth off of the car and to the sidewalk, damaging her bonnet and dress.

Elizabeth wrote a letter detailing her treatment. It was read in church and sent to Horace Greeley’s newspaper, The New York Daily Tribune. Her father also contacted a lawyer, Chester Arthur, the future US President. Arthur won the case against the Third Avenue Railway Company, saying that “colored persons” couldn’t be kept off of public transportation by company rules “nor by force or violence.”

Frances Watkins Harper
Frances Watkins Harper (source)

Frances Watkins Harper (source)

Frances Watkins Harper was writer, teacher, and public speaker, lecturing on abolitionism, prohibition, and women’s suffrage, both before and after the Civil War. During the Reconstruction era, she also traveled in the south to report on living conditions of freedmen.  In April of 1858, while traveling in Pennsylvania, she was asked to leave one of the city cars. She refused and told her own story in a letter to William Lloyd Garrison’s paper The Liberator.

“The other day, in attempting to ride in one of the city cars, after I had entered, the conductor came to me, and wanted me to go out on the platform. Now, was not that brave and noble? As a matter of course, I did not. Some one interfered, and asked or requested that I might be permitted to sit in a corner. I did not move, but kept the same seat. When I was about to leave, he refused my money, and I threw it down on the car floor, and got out, after I had ridden as far as I wished. Such Impudence!”

"The Liberator" (April 23, 1858) article by Frances Watkins Harper

“The Liberator” (April 23, 1858) article by Frances Watkins Harper

Browder v. Gayle: The Women Before Rosa Parks
Keys v. Carolina Coach Co. at Wikipedia
Irene Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia
Ida B. Wells and Her Passion for Justice
Sojourner Truth: A Life Led By Faith
The Narrative of Sojourner Truth by Margaret Washington
The Schoolteacher on the Streetcar (Elizabeth Jennings)
The Liberator (April 23, 1858) – article written by Frances Watkins Harper

Celebrating Black History Month Part 3

Here’s one last post of the women we’ve highlighted on the Saints, Sisters, and Sluts Facebook page for Black History Month. There are many more women who have made considerable contributions and done amazing things. It’s impossible to include them all. I know I have learned a lot though and have a basis to build on for future blog posts. I hope you’ve learned something along the way as well.

Nannie Helen Burroughs

Nannie Helen Burroughs by Rotograph Co., New York City, 1909

Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879 – 1961) was an educator, orator, religious leader, and business woman. She helped found the National Association of Colored Women and worked within the National Baptist Convention. In 1909, she founded the National Training School for Women and Girls. The school emphasized preparation for occupations, but also stressed being proud black women. To this end students were required to take a class in African American history and culture.

Willa Brown

Willa Brown

Willa Brown (1906 – 1992) was a teacher, social worker, pilot, and flight instructor, the first black woman officer in the Civil Air Patrol and the first black woman to hold a commercial pilot’s license in the US. With Cornelius R. Coffey (her husband and flight instructor) she established the Coffey School of Aeronautics to train pilots and mechanics.

She helped found the National Airmen’s Association of America in 1939 and lobbied for integration of black pilots into the Army Air Corps and the Civilian Pilot Training Program. The Coffey School was selected by the US Army to provide black trainees for the Air Corps pilot training program at the Tuskegee Institute.

Sissieretta Jones

Sissieretta Jones

Sissieretta Jones (1868? – 1933) was an American soprano who sang both opera and popular music. After beginning in the choir of her father’s African Methodist Episcopal church, Sissieretta went on to sing for 4 consecutive US Presidents and the British Royal Family.

Sissieretta Jones was sometimes referred to as "The Black Patti"

Sissieretta Jones was sometimes referred to as “The Black Patti”

She studied at the Providence Academy of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music. In 1888, she came to the attention of Adelina Patti’s manager who suggested that she tour with the Fisk Jubilee singers. Adelina Patti was a successful Italian opera singer. Sissieretta was sometimes referred to as “The Black Patti.”

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin (1842 – 1924) was an African American publisher, journalist, civil rights leader, suffragist and the founder and editor of Women’s Era, the first journal written by and for African American women. Together with her husband George Lewis Ruffin (who had a number of first’s to his name, including first African American male graduate from Harvard Law School,) Josephine worked to recruit black soldiers to the Union cause during the Civil War and to support the men in the field.

In 1869, Josephine joined with Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone to form the American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1895, she organized the Nation Federation of Afro-American Women which later merged with the Colored Women’s League to form the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs with Mary Church Terrell at its head.

“The Ruffin Incident” occurred when Josephine intended to attend the meeting of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1900. She was representing two integrated groups (the New England Woman’s Club and the New England Woman’s Press Club) and one all black group, the New Era Club. When southern leaders discovered that the New Era Club was an all black organization they refused to let her represent them, but said she could participate as a representative of the other groups. She refused to compromise. The incident was widely reported across the country with much support for Ruffin.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917 – 1977) was a voting rights advocate and civil rights activist. In 1962, in spite of the danger, she joined a group of people inspired by James Bevel and traveled to Indianola MS to register to vote. It was a very dangerous thing for African Americans to attempt to vote in the South at the time, so to bolster the groups courage she began to sing Christian hymns. This became her trademark as she organized other groups to register. Her courage brought her to the attention of leaders in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who recruited her to speak and organize.

Hamer is probably best known for her speech given to the Credential’s Committee at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. The Mississippi Democratic Party sent an all white and anti-civil rights delegation. In response Hamer with others formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Committee to challenge the all white delegation as not representing all of Mississippi. Ultimately, the compromise offered by the Convention was unacceptable to the MFDC, but the Democratic Party adopted a clause demanding equality of representation from all state delegations. Fannie Lou Hamer was selected as a delegate to the 1968 Convention.

There are several women I highlighted on the FB page, but not in these posts because they already appear in other blog posts. If you’re interested here are the names and links.

Marian Anderson
Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary Ann Shadd

In case you missed Part 1 or Part 2.

Celebrating Black History Month Part 1

During Black History Month, I’ve been highlighting at least one black woman each day on the Saints, Sisters, and Sluts Facebook page. I share other people’s posts, but I’ve made an effort to post at least one woman each day that is new to me or that I’ve learned something new about, and I’ve learned so much. However, there are people who follow the blog or follow me on twitter that don’t see the Facebook posts, so I decided to post that information here as well. It will also give me a handy place to refer to, because some of these women I want to learn more about, possibly for future blog posts.

All of the women I’ve posted have been African Americans. I didn’t necessarily intend it to be that way, Canada and Britain celebrate as well, there are two women Presidents in Africa now, and black women who have won the Nobel Peace Prize recently, but there is so much of my own country’s history that I still don’t know, so I just went where my search led me. There are many more women who could be highlighted, 28 days just isn’t enough. I’m going to break this up into several posts to keep them relatively short and readable. Please comment and let me know who your favorites are or more information about these women.

Maggie L. Walker

Maggie L. Walker

Maggie Lena Walker
Maggie Lena Walker (1864 – 1934) was an African-American business woman. She was the first woman to charter a bank in the US and the first female bank president. Working with the Independent Order of St. Luke, she established a newspaper, The St. Luke Herald, and chartered the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank.

Maggie Walker worked to create tangible improvements in the lives of women and African Americans. She also was an example for people with disabilities later in life when she was confined to a wheelchair. The Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School for Government and International Studies in Richmond, VA is named for her and her home was designated a National Historic Site and opened as a museum in 1985.

Edith S. Sampson, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1949

Edith S. Sampson, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1949

Edith Spurlock Sampson
Edith Spurlock Sampson (1898 – 1979) left school at 14 because of family financial difficulties. She cleaned and de-boned fish at a fish market, but was able to return to school and graduate. She went on to study social work at the New York School of Social Work, then went to law school while working full time as a social worker.

After graduating from John Marshall Law School, she opened a law office and worked with the Juvenile Court system and as a probation officer. In 1927, she became the first woman to receive a Master of Laws from Loyola University’s graduate program and passed the Illinois bar exam. In 1934 she was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of the US. Sampson was the first black woman elected as a judge in the state of Illinois, was the first African-American appointed as a delegate to the United Nations, and was the first African American US representative to NATO.

Audrey Forbes Manley

Audrey Forbes Manley

Audrey Forbes Manley
Audrey Forbes Manley (b. 1934) is an American pediatrician and public health administrator. After graduating from Spelman College and Meharry Medical College, she began a distinguished career that included private practice and becoming chief of medical services at Grady Memorial Hospital’s Emory University Family Planning Clinic. Manley began her career in Public Health in 1976 eventually becoming US Deputy Surgeon General and acting Surgeon General from 1995 to 1997 when she became the President of her alma mater Spelman College.

Rosa Parks arrest in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on the bus

Rosa Parks arrest in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat on the bus

Rosa Parks
February 4th of this year would have been Rosa Park’s 100th birthday. Most of us are familiar with her act of civil disobedience in 1955, when she refused to give up her seat in the ‘colored’ section of the bus to a white man, sparking the Montgomery Bus Boycott. But Parks was more than a demure seamstress, she had been an active participant in the fight for civil rights since 1943. She also endured many hardships due to her involvement in the movement. She and her husband eventually moved to Detroit MI to try to find work. Jeanne Theoharis, political science professor at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, has written a new biography of Rosa Parks which sounds excellent, The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. She gave a presentation about Rosa Parks which you can view online.

Elizabeth Jennings c. 1895

Elizabeth Jennings c. 1895

Elizabeth Jennings
One hundred years before Rosa Parks refused to leave her seat on the bus, Elizabeth Jennings insisted on her right to ride on a street car in NYC. When she was removed, she filed a law suit. Future President Chester Arthur won the case and the street cars of the city were integrated as a result. See Patricia Dolton’s blog post for more information. Not much is known about her later life. She was a teacher, church organist, and she opened the first kindergarten for black children in NYC.

Leontyne Price

Leontyne Price

Leontyne Price
Leontyne Price is an American soprano with an exquisite voice. Although Price wasn’t the first African American to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, she was the first to sing many different roles at the Met and to build an opera career in the US and in Europe. When she debuted on January 27, 1961, the final ovation was 35 minutes, one of the longest in the history of the Met. Prior to this she had developed her reputation in Europe including being the first African American to sing a leading role in Italy’s great opera house, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Her many awards include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, and 19 Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award..

Plácido Domingo wrote, “The power and sensuousness of Leontyne’s voice were phenomenal–the most beautiful Verdi soprano I have ever heard.”

Delta Sigma Theta founders

Delta Sigma Theta founders

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority
The Delta Sigma Theta Sorority was founded by 22 women from Howard University in 1913. Their first public act was to march in the Women’s Suffrage March on March 3, 1913. The participation of African American women in 1913 was controversial, but this year ΔΣθ is sponsoring the march on March 3, 2013 to commemorate the Centennial of the 1913 march which changed the tide of the women’s suffrage movement. The National Women’s History Museum invites you to join them.

Regarding their decision to march in the Suffrage Parade in 1913, founder Florence Letcher Toms commented, “We marched that day in order that women might come into their own, because we believed that women not only needed an education, but they needed a broader horizon in which they may use that education. And the right to vote would give them that privilege.”

A sisterhood of more than 300,000 predominantly Black college-educated women, the sorority currently has over 1,000 chapters located in the United States, England, Japan (Tokyo and Okinawa), Germany, the Virgin Islands, Bermuda, the Bahamas and the Republic of Korea. (from Wikipedia)

Continue to read Celebrating Black History Month in Part2 and Part 3.