Shirley Graham Du Bois
DuBois, Shirley Graham 1907–1977
Shirley Graham DuBois 1907–1977
Author, activist, playwright, composer
In the 1930s and 1940s, Shirley Graham DuBois (then Shirley Graham) earned a national reputation as a playwright, composer, and author. She began her career as a composer, writing musical plays, operas, and scores for theatrical productions. In the 1940s, she turned to writing biographies for young people, teaching them about African Americans and their accomplishments. Her 1946 biography of Frederick Douglass, There Was Once a Slave, won an award for “the best book combating intolerance in America.”
In 1951, she married her long-time mentor, Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, civil rights activist, author, professor, and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Afterward, Shirley DuBois became better known in her role as wife, and later widow, of W.E.B. DuBois—a man nearly 40 years her senior—rather than for her own substantial accomplishments. After W.E.B. DuBois’s death, Shirley DuBois wrote two books about him: His Day Is Marching On: A Memoir of W.E.B. DuBois, and DuBois: A Pictorial Biography.
At a time when there was widespread ignorance of African and African-American history, Shirley DuBois made an invaluable contribution. Her biographies included works on Benjamin Banneker, Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable, Paul Robeson, and Booker T. Washington. “I have always thought of myself primarily as a teacher,” Shirley DuBois was quoted as saying on the dust jacket of her book, DuBois: A Pictorial Biography. “My purpose is to dispel ignorance and misunderstanding around the Negro people themselves and in their relations with others outside their race.”
DuBois was born Shirley Graham on November 11, 1907, in Evansville, Indiana. Her father, Reverend David A. Graham, was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, while her mother, Etta Bell Graham, was a homemaker. The Grahams lived all over the country during DuBois’s childhood; her earliest memories were of New Orleans. Reverend Graham, a remarkable storyteller, had a strong influence on his daughter’s literary development: rather than reading fairy tales to
At a Glance…
Born Shirley Graham on November 11, 1907, in Evansville, Indiana; died March 27, 1977, of breast cancer, Beijing, China; daughter of Rev. David A. Graham, ministerof the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Etta Bell Graham; married Mr. McCanns (first name unknown); children: Robert and David; widowed three years later; married W.E.B. BuBois, 1951; widowed 1963. Education: Studied musical composition at the Sorbonne, Paris, 1929; Oberlin College, B.A., 1934, M.A., 1935; studied at the Yale School of Drama, 1938-40; pursued graduate work in English and education, New York University, mid-1940s.
Career: Music teacher, Morgan College, 1930-32; composer, Tom-Tom (1932); teacher of music and arts, Agricultural and Industrial State College, Nashville, 1935-36; supervisor, Chicago Federal Theater, 1936-38; USO director, Fort Huachaca, Arizona, early 1940s; national field secretary for the NAACP, mid-1940s; co-founder, editor, Freedomways magazine, 1961.
Awards: Julian Messner Award for There Once Was a Slave, 1946; Anisfield-Wolf Award for Your Most Humble Servant, 1950.
her, he chose to read novels such as Ben Hur and Quo Vadis.
Shirley Graham first met W.E.B. DuBois when she was 13, and he was in his early fifties. Her father had invited him to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the family was living, to deliver a lecture. “That evening left an indelible impression on my mind,” Shirley DuBois wrote decades later in His Day Is Marching On. She became a faithful reader of the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, which was edited by DuBois. When she was a freshman in high school, the magazine’s editorials inspired her to write an essay on the segregationist policies of the YWCA in Colorado Springs; her father submitted it to the local paper, which published it on the front page.
Shortly after graduating from Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, Washington, DuBois married. Her husband died three years later, leaving her with two young sons. “For the years immediately following, everything I did, everything I planned, everything I tried to do was motivated by my passionate desire to make a good life for my sons,” she wrote later in His Day Is Marching On. “I soon realized that to do this I myself must be better equipped.” She decided she needed to pursue a college education.
In 1929, DuBois moved to Paris, where she studied music composition at the Sorbonne. While in Paris, she met many French-African musicians, whose compositions brought together African and European elements. DuBois’s interest in African musical traditions would later surface in her own academic and creative work. In 1930, DuBois returned to the United States, where she taught music at Morgan College in Baltimore, Maryland, for two years. She then entered Oberlin College in Ohio to complete her bachelor’s degree.
While at Oberlin, DuBois wrote a musical play, Tom-Tom, for a school production. She later developed the play into an opera that dramatized the history of African Americans, beginning in Africa and ending in Harlem; the score was strongly influenced by African rhythms and musical themes. Tom-Tom was performed by Cleveland’s opera company in 1932, earning high critical acclaim. In 1934, DuBois earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Oberlin.
Meanwhile, she continued to stay in touch with W.E.B. DuBois. In August of 1933, she contributed an article titled “Black Man’s Music” to The Crisis. The following year, she sent W.E.B. DuBois a draft of her thesis, “Survivals of Africanisms in Modern Music,” for suggestions and comments: “It came back to me with a hearty endorsement,” she wrote later in His Day Is Marching On. DuBois earned her master’s degree in music in 1935.
From 1935 to 1936, DuBois taught music and arts at Agricultural and Industrial State College in Nashville. In the summer of 1936, she became a supervisor at the Chicago Federal Theater. During her three years there, she directed productions, organized acting classes, and wrote musical scores for plays, helping to bring the theater to national prominence.
In 1938, DuBois won a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for creative writing. She spent the next two years at the Yale School of Drama, where her three-act play, Dust to Earth, was performed in 1941. During this time, several of her short plays were produced by the Gilpin Players in Cleveland, including Coal Dust (1938) and I Gotta Home (1939). She also wrote a radio play, Track Thirteen, which was produced in 1940. When World War II became imminent, DuBois moved to Arizona, where she was a USO director at Fort Huachaca, the base of the largest contingent of African American soldiers in the country.
In 1942, DuBois became a national field secretary for the NAACP, based in New York. During this time, she abandoned her career in composing and performing; instead, she began to write biographies of famous black Americans, with the goal of educating young people about African-American history. In 1944, DuBois collaborated with George Lipscomb on a book written for teenage readers, Dr. George Washington Carver, Scientist. Critical response was enthusiastic. According to a review in the Christian Science Monitor, “There is inspiration in the poignant picture the authors paint of Carver,” while the Saturday Review of Literature noted, “Their book has the simplicity and dignity that is necessary to interpret Dr. Carver accurately to the public.”
At the encouragement of W.E.B. DuBois, Shirley DuBois decided to pursue graduate work in English and education at New York University. Meanwhile, she continued to write biographies. In 1946, she published Paul Robeson, Citizen of the World. The following year, she published There Once Was a Slave, the story of Frederick Douglass. The book won the Julian Messner Award—which carried a prize of $6,500, a substantial sum then—for “the best book combating intolerance in America.” In 1950, she won the Anisfield-Wolf Award for a biography of Benjamin Banneker, Your Most Humble Servant.
In 1951, a year after the death of W.E.B. DuBois’ first wife, he and Shirley were engaged. “I knew that I had been in love with him for a long time,” Shirley DuBois wrote in DuBois: A Pictorial Biography. “He had dominated my life to the extent that no other man could come near me. But my love made no demands. The fact that we shared work together was enough. Now, that was no longer true, for either of us.”
Soon afterward, W.E.B. DuBois, along with four other members of the organization Peace Information Center, were indicted by the federal government. For years, W.E.B. DuBois had openly supported leftist causes; now the federal government charged him and the others with “‘not having registered as agents of a foreign principal,’” Shirley DuBois wrote in DuBois: A Pictorial Biography. “The burden of proving that they were not such agents was on the defense. They faced, if convicted, a five-year prison sentence plus a fine of $10,000.”
The couple was married in 1951, just before the trial. In an article for Essence, Shirley’s son David DuBois recalled about that time, “My mother told me that the nuptials—just prior to the scheduled trial—were timed to ensure that come what may, she would have unimpeded access to him.” Though W.E.B. DuBois and the others were acquitted, they continued to be under close surveillance by the U.S. government. Both W.E.B. and Shirley DuBois were denied passports until the late 1950s, so they were unable to leave the country.
Meanwhile, Shirley DuBois continued to write biographies, including The Story of Phyllis Wheatley (1949), and The Story of Pocahontas (1953). After marrying W.E.B. DuBois, however, she was dismissive of her own career. In 1956, when she accompanied her husband on a lecture tour across the country, she had many engagements of her own, including book signings, lectures to book clubs, and luncheons with civic groups. “This was the kind of trivia with which W.E.B. never concerned himself, though he would speed me on my way with a cheerful ‘Have a good time!’” she wrote in His Day Is Marching On.
In 1958, the Supreme Court overturned political restrictions on passports; the following year, the DuBoises embarked on a world tour. Though it was the height of the Cold War, they visited a series of Communist countries, including Czechoslovakia, East Germany, the Soviet Union, and China. During these visits, they met with several top Communist leaders, such as Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Tse-tung, “one of the world’s truly great men,” Shirley DuBois wrote in DuBois: A Pictorial Biography. In 1961, partly as a protest against increasing conservatism in the United States, W.E.B. DuBois decided to join the Communist Party. While Shirley DuBois did not, she claimed to be a “proud apologist” for Communism (quoted as saying in her New York Times obituary).
In 1961, Shirley DuBois co-founded the magazine Freedomways, “a magazine…that would encompass the Negro freedom movement,” she wrote in His Day Is Marching On. “It was an ambitious undertaking; we knew it would be labeled ‘subversive.’” DuBois campaigned to gain support for the magazine, and became its first editor.
Meanwhile, Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah had invited W.E.B. DuBois to begin a project of immense scope: an Encyclopedia Africana. When her husband decided to accept Nkrumah’s offer, Shirley DuBois resigned her position at Freedomways, and moved with her husband to Accra, Ghana, in 1961. Life in Ghana, DuBois later told Essence magazine, “was an unmitigated joy….I fell in love with the place—the sunshine, the flowers, the green everywhere, and above all the beautiful black people.” Soon afterward, the DuBoises decided to become Ghanaian citizens.
W.E.B. DuBois died in 1963, at the age of 95. After his death, Shirley DuBois remained in Ghana, writing and sorting out the details of many of his unfinished projects. In 1967, however, she was forced to flee when Nkrumah’s regime was ousted by a military coup. She then moved to Cairo, Egypt, where her son David was working as a journalist.
In Cairo, DuBois continued to write prolifically. Her memoir of W.E.B. DuBois, His Day is Marching On, appeared in 1971. She followed this with Gamel Abdul Nasser, Son of the Nile (1974), Julius K. Nyerere, Teacher of Africa (1975), and a novel, The Zulu Heart. During this time, she also lectured widely on the theme “Egypt is Africa.”
DuBois continued to support leftist causes and organizations until the end of her life. In 1971, she was temporarily denied a visa to travel to the United States. The Justice Department claimed that she had been associated with more than 30 organizations on the Attorney General’s list of subversive groups; later, the department relented, and allowed her into the country.
In the late 1970s, DuBois taught creative writing in the W.E.B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. In 1976, on a visit to New York, she was a principal speaker at Chinatown’s memorial tribute to the Chinese Prime Minister, Chou En-lai.
In the last year of her life, DuBois was commissioned by Johnson Publishing Company to write a pictorial biography of her husband. Although she had already been diagnosed with breast cancer, DuBois accepted the challenge. “Warned by her doctors that delaying hospitalization was extremely inadvisable, she nevertheless insisted upon a two-week layover in Cairo, Egypt…in order to fulfill that commitment,” her son David wrote in the forward to the book, DuBois: A Pictorial Biography. Her work completed, DuBois travelled to Beijing, China, where she underwent treatment, but the cancer was too advanced. DuBois died on March 27, 1977, at the age of 69. Her final book was published posthumously in 1978.
Dr. George Washington Carver, Scientist, J. Messner, 1944.
Paul Robeson, Citizen of the World, J. Messner, 1946.
There Was Once a Slave: The Heroic Story of Frederick Douglass, J. Messner, 1947.
Your Most Humble Servant: The Story of Benjamin Banneker, J. Messner, 1949.
The Story of Phyllis Wheatley, J. Messner, 1949.
The Story of Pocahontas, Grosset & Dunlap, 1953.
Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable: Founder of Chicago, J. Messner, 1971.
Booker T. Washington, Educator of Hand and Heart, J. Messner, 1971.
His Day is Marching On: A Memoir of W.E.B. DuBois, Lippincott, 1971.
Gamel Abdul Nasser, Son of the Nile, Third Press, 1974.
Julius K. Nyerere, Teacher of Africa, J. Messner, 1975.
The Zulu Heart, Third Press, 1978.
DuBois: A Pictorial Biography, Johnson Publishing, 1978.
The Crisis, May 1977.
Essence, January 1971, February 1996.
Jet, November 14, 1994.
DuBois, Shirley Graham, DuBois: A Pictorial Biography, Johnson Publishing Company, 1978.
—, His Day Is Marching On: A Memoir of W.E.B. DuBois, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1971.
The New York Times Biographical Service, Arno Press, 1977.
Du Bois, Shirley Graham
Du Bois, Shirley Graham
November 11, 1896
March 27, 1977
Writer and political activist Shirley Graham Du Bois was born Lola Bell Graham in 1896 near Indianapolis, Indiana, the daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) minister. She studied music at the Sorbonne and Harvard University, and from 1929 to 1931 she headed the music department at Morgan College in Baltimore. In 1931 she enrolled at Oberlin College, where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees. In 1932 her opera Tom-Tom was staged at the Cleveland Stadium. She became director of the Chicago unit of the Federal Theatre Project and then received a Rosenwald Fellowship for creative writing, which she used for study at Yale from 1938 to 1940.
Graham directed YWCA theater groups until the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) employed her as a field secretary in New York, a position she held from 1942 until 1944. During this period she began her series of biographies for young adults of noteworthy African Americans. Graham held a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1945–1947 and a National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1950. On February 14, 1951, she married her longtime friend and adviser, W. E. B. Du Bois, and devoted her energies to causes he championed.
At the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah, the couple moved to Ghana in 1961, the year she also became a founding editor of Freedomways. From 1964 to 1966 Graham was the organizing director of Ghana television. When a coup toppled Nkrumah, she moved to Cairo. The U.S. Department of Justice would not permit her to return to the United States, citing her membership in numerous subversive groups. She died of cancer in Beijing in 1977.
See also Du Bois, W. E. B
Brown-Guillory, Elizabeth. "Shirley Graham Du Bois." In Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Darlene Clark Hine. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1993.
Horne, Gerald. Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
christine a. lunardini (1996)