Last updated: January 13, 2021
Before Shirley Graham married W.E.B. Du Bois in 1951, she had earned a national reputation as a playwright, composer, conductor, director, and author. Born to an A.M.E. minister and a European mother, Graham was raised to appreciate Black culture and music. From a young age, her parents instilled in her the importance of social justice and the uplift of the Black Community. Throughout her life, she continued to advocate for the Black community. For her lifelong dedication, we honor her as an ancestor.
Graham’s first career was as a composer and playwright. After brief stints at the Sorbonne in 1926, Howard University, and Morgan State University, she completed a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music history at Oberlin College in 1934 and 1935. By this time, she had already become the first Black woman to write and produce an all-black opera, Tom-Toms: An Epic of Music and the Negro (1932). It represented her desire to preserve Black music, particularly spirituals, which she was concerned Black people would abandon. She used the sound of the tom tom drum to tell the history of Black Americas, beginning on African soil. Her goal was to connect the Black community to their roots, something beyond the history of their enslavement. The opera premiered at the “Stadium Opera” festival in Cleveland, Ohio and drew national attention as it featured a cast of 500. The first and only time it was ever performed it drew a crowd of 10,000 on the first night and 15,000 on the second night. It was described as “not only great in conception and splendidly executed, but that it was a new opera, something different from what had preceded it in history.”[i] The opera was lost until 2018 when Lucy Caplan, then a Yale doctoral candidate, found a score among Du Bois’ papers.
Following her success, Graham decided to develop her craft as a dramatist. In 1936, she accepted a position as the director of the Black division of the Chicago Federal Theater Project. Between 1938 and 1940, Graham wrote and produced five plays: Dust to Earth, I Gotta Home, It’s Mornin’, Track Thirteen, and Elijah’s Raven. Of the five, It’s Mornin’ is the most notable. It tells the story of an enslaved woman who kills her teenage daughter to protect her from their owner.
Following her dismissal from the Young Women’s Christian Association-United Service Organization for her efforts to end discrimination against Black soldiers at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, she became the national field secretary for the NAACP. She stayed with the NAACP for a year before turning her attention to writing biographies of famous Black Americans, with the goal of teaching young people about Black history. Between 1944 and 1976, she published thirteen book-length biographies, featuring figures such as George Washington Carver, Paul Robeson, Frederick Douglass, Phillis Wheatley, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Her biography of Douglass, There Was Once a Slave (1947), won the Julian Messner Award for being the “best book combatting intolerance in America.”[ii] The award included a prize of $6,500.
In 1951, Graham married W.E.B. Du Bois, whom she had first met when she was 13. At the time of their marriage she was 54 and he was 83. Together, the couple fought side-by-side to improve the life of underrepresented groups in the United States. A year into their marriage, Du Bois was indicted for “un-American” activities. By this time, he had become an advocate of communism—believing it was more suitable for Black people globally. Praising communist racial attitudes, he argued that, “No universal selfishness can bring social good to all. Communism—the effort to give all men what they need and to ask of each the best they can contribute—this is the only way of human life.”[iii] However, this was the era of McCarthyism and the birth of the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO). CONINTELPRO was a program conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 1956 to 1971. It worked to discredit and neutralized organizations considered subversive to the stability of the U.S. political system. It later came under criticism from the American public and Congress for curtailing the first amendment and its tacicts. Du Bois was pursued aggressively under this program. For the next decade, the Du Bois’ endured a number of legal battles as a result of his alleged connection to the Communist party.
Though he was acquitted for insufficient evidence, they decided to emigrate to Ghana in 1961. When her husband died in Ghana in 1963, she took over a number of his unfinished projects. Now widowed and without a U.S. passport, Graham Du Bois stayed in Ghana until 1966 when she was forced to leave after President Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown. She moved to Cairo in 1966 after briefly living and obtaining citizenship in Tanzania. In Cairo, she lived with her son, David, a journalist. For the next decade, she travelled throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and the U.S. (only twice in 1971 and 1975) promoting anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. She remained devoted to the causes of liberation for African and Black peoples, and world peace. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and went to China for treatment in 1976. Shirley Graham Du Bois succumbed to cancer in March of the following year in Beijing.
Throughout her life, she remained committed to the Black community. This is evidenced by her simultaneous careers and several prestigious awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1945-1947), the Ansfield-Wolf Award in 1949, and the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1950. Though she became a pariah in American civil rights history due to her association with communism, she has rightfully earned recognition as a creative powerhouse. She is associated with the W.E.B. Du Bois’ boyhood home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It was listed as a National Historic Landmark on May 11, 1976.
This article is part of the "Exploring the Meaning of Black Womanhood Series: Hidden Figures in NPS Places" written by Dr. Mia L. Carey, NPS Mellon Humanities Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. This project was made possible through the National Park Service in part by a grant from the National Park Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Hine, Darlene Clark. 2005. “Shirley Graham Du Bois.” Black Women in America: Volume I. Oxford: Oxford University Press. P. 371-372.
Lunardini, Christine. 2020. Shirley Graham Du Bois 1907-1977. https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/historians-and-chronicles/historians-miscellaneous-biographies/shirley-graham-du-bois, accessed July 31, 2020.
Schlesinger Library. Nd. Shirley Graham Du Bois. https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library/collection/shirley-graham-du-bois, accessed July 31, 2020.
[i] Schlesinger Library n.d.
[ii] Lunardini 2020.
[iii] Kihss, Peter. 1961. Dr. W.E.B. DuBois Joins Communist Party at 93. https://movies2.nytimes.com/books/00/11/05/specials/dubois-communist.html, accessed October 9, 2020.