Shirley Graham Du Bois

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Shirley Graham, 1946

Shirley Graham Du Bois (born Lola Shirley Graham Jr.; November 11, 1896 – March 27, 1977) was an American author, playwright, composer, and activist for African-American causes, among others. She won the Messner and the Anisfield-Wolf prizes for her works.


She was born Lola Shirley Graham Jr. in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1896, as the only daughter among six children. Her father was an African Methodist Episcopal minister, her mother was European, and the family moved often. In June 1915, Shirley graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, Washington.[1]

She married her first husband, Shadrach T. McCants, in 1921. Their son Robert was born in 1923, followed by David Graham DuBois[2] in 1925. In 1926, Graham moved to Paris, France, to study music composition at the Sorbonne. She thought that this education might allow her to achieve better employment and be able to better support her children. Meeting Africans and Afro-Caribbean people in Paris introduced her to new music and cultures. Shirley and Shadrach divorced in 1927.

In 1931, Graham entered Oberlin College as an advanced student and, after earning her B.A. in 1934, went on to do graduate work in music, completing a master's degree in 1935.[3] In 1936, Hallie Flanagan appointed Graham director of the Chicago Negro Unit of the Federal Theater Project, part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration. She wrote musical scores, directed, and did additional associated work.[3]

In the late 1940s, Graham became a member of Sojourners for Truth and Justice – an African-American organization working for global women's liberation.[1] Around the same time, she joined the American Communist Party.[1]

In 1951, she married W. E. B. Du Bois, the second marriage for both. She was 54 years old; he was 83. They later emigrated to Ghana, where they received citizenship in 1961 and he died in 1963. In 1967, she was forced to leave after a military-led coup d'état, and moved to Cairo, Egypt, where she continued writing. Her surviving son David Graham Du Bois accompanied her and worked as a journalist.[4]

Shirley Graham Du Bois died of breast cancer on March 27, 1977, aged 80, in Beijing, China.[5]

She died as a Tanzanian. She had moved from Ghana to Tanzania after Ghanaian president, Kwame Nkrumah, was overthrown on 24 February 1966, and became close to Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere, and acquired Tanzanian citizenship.

Her alma mater Oberlin Conservatory of Music recently honored DuBois offering cluster courses and a conference devoted to reviving her remarkable legacy as a composer, activist and media figure. The conference was called Intersections: Recovering the Genius of Shirley Graham Du Bois 2020 Symposium on Thursday and Friday, February 27 & 28, 2020 that included a plenary lecture by Columbia professor and author Farah Jasmine Griffin.[6] The event was co-sponsored by The Gertrude B. Lemle Teaching Center, StudiOC, a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Dean of The College, Dean of the Conservatory, History Department, Oberlin College Libraries, Africana Studies Department, and the Theater Department.


After meeting Africans in Paris while studying at the Sorbonne in 1926, Graham composed the musical score and libretto of Tom Tom: An Epic of Music and the Negro (1932), an opera. She used music, dance and the book to express the story of Africans' journey to the North American colonies, through slavery and to freedom.[7] It premiered in Cleveland, Ohio.[8] The opera attracted 10,000 people to its premiere at the Cleveland Stadium and 15,000 to the second performance.[3][9]

According to the Oxford Companion to African-American Literature, her theatre works included Deep Rivers (1939), a musical; It's Morning (1940), a one-act tragedy about a slave mother who contemplates infanticide; I Gotta Home (1940), a one-act drama; Track Thirteen (1940), a comedy for radio and her only published play; Elijah's Raven (1941), a three-act comedy; and Dust to Earth (1941), a three-act tragedy.[3]

Graham used theater to tell the black woman's story and perspective, countering white versions of history. Despite her unsuccessful attempts to land a Broadway production as many African American women before and after her, her plays were still produced by Karamu Theatre in Cleveland and other major Black companies. Her work was also seen in many colleges and both Track Thirteen (1940) and Tom-Tom were aired on the radio.[10]

Due to the difficulty in getting musicals or plays produced and published, Graham turned to literature. She wrote in a variety of genres, specializing from the 1950s in biographies of leading African-American and world figures for young readers. She wanted to increase the number of books that dealt with notable African Americans in elementary school libraries. Owing to her personal knowledge of her subjects, her books on Paul Robeson and Kwame Nkrumah are considered especially interesting. Other subjects included Frederick Douglass, Phillis Wheatley, and Booker T. Washington; as well as Gamal Abdul Nasser, and Julius Nyerere. One of her last novels, Zulu Heart (1974), included sympathetic portrayals of whites in South Africa despite racial conflicts.[3]

Selections from her correspondence with her husband (both before and after their relationship began) appear in the three volume 1976 collection edited by Herbert Aptheker (ed.), Correspondence of W.E.B. Du Bois.[11] Shirley Graham Du Bois is the subject of Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois.[9]


We are a race of artists. What are we doing about it?

— "Towards an American Theatre," Arts Quarterly, October–December 1937.[12]


Biographies for young readers:[3]

  • with George D. Lipscomb, Dr. George Washington Carver, Scientist, New York: Julian Messner, 1944, (Library binding has ISBN 978-0671325107)
  • Paul Robeson, Citizen of the World, Connecticut, 1946: Greenwood Press, reprint 1972
  • Your Most Humble Servant: Benjamin Banneker, New York: Julian Messner, 1949; winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1950[13]
  • The Story of Phillis Wheatley: Poetess of the Revolution, New York: Julian Messner, 1949
  • The Story of Pocahontas, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1953
  • Jean Baptiste Pointe duSable: Founder of Chicago (1953)
  • Booker T. Washington: Educator of Head, Hand and Heart, New York: Julian Messner, 1955
  • His Day Is Marching On: A Memoir of W.E.B. Du Bois, New York: Lippincott, 1971
  • Julius K. Nyerere, Teacher of Africa, New York: Julian Messner, 1975
  • Du Bois: A Pictorial Biography, Johnsons, 1978


  • There Once Was a Slave (1947), the Messner Prize-winning historical novel on the life of Frederick Douglass;[3] and
  • Zulu Heart, New York: Third Press, 1974


  1. ^ a b c Aptheker, Bettina. "Graham Du Bois, Shirley," in Susan Ware and Stacy Braukman (eds), Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004, pp. 248–249.
  2. ^ Woo, Elaine (February 10, 2005). "David Graham Du Bois, 79; Professor, Journalist and Stepson of Famed Scholar". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 22, 2020.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g "Shirley Graham", Oxford Companion to African-American Literature, 2001, accessed January 18, 2012.
  4. ^ "In Memoriam: DAVID GRAHAM DU BOIS (1925-2005)". The Black Scholar. 35 (1): 42. 2005. JSTOR 41069120.
  5. ^ Yunxiang, Gao (Spring 2013). "W. E. B. And Shirley Graham du Bois in Maoist China". Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race. 10 (1): 59–85. doi:10.1017/S1742058X13000040.
  6. ^ "Intersections: Recovering the Genius of Shirley Graham Du Bois 2020 Symposium | February 27, 2020 | Oberlin College & Conservatory". Retrieved October 22, 2020.
  7. ^ Linda Ragin, "Review: Gerald Horne, 'Race Woman'" Archived March 29, 2010, at the Wayback Machine, Books for Blacks Website, 2000, accessed January 18, 2012.
  8. ^ Schmalenberger, Sarah, "Debuting Her Political Voice: The Lost Opera of Shirley Graham", Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Spring 2006), pp. 39–87.
  9. ^ a b Horne, Gerald (2000). Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-3648-7.
  10. ^ Barlow, Judith E. (2001). Plays by American Woman: 1930-1960. New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers. p. xvii. ISBN 1-55783-164-5.
  11. ^ Correspondence of W.E.B. Du Bois, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press; ISBN 1558491031/ISBN 978-1558491038.
  12. ^ "Shirley Graham (Du Bois)" Archived February 25, 2005, at the Wayback Machine, in Women of Color, Women of Words, 2005; retrieved March 14, 2009.
  13. ^ "Shirley Graham". The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.

Further reading/links[edit]


  • Hine, Darlene Clark (ed). Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, New York: Carlson, NY, 1993