Shirley Graham Du Bois

Shirley Graham Du Bois in profile, ca. 1945. Photo by Calhoun. Courtesy of Shirley Graham Du Bois Papers, Schlesinger LibraryShirley Graham Du Bois in profile, ca. 1945. Photo by Calhoun. Courtesy of Shirley Graham Du Bois Papers, Schlesinger Library

Shirley Graham Du Bois was an American award-winning author, playwright, composer, and activist for African American and other causes. In later life she married the noted thinker, writer, and activist W.E.B. Du Bois.

Du Bois was born on November 11 in Indianapolis, Indiana, in approximately 1896 as the only daughter among six children. Her father, Reverend David A. Graham, was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church where her mother, Elizabeth Etta (Bell) Graham, was also active. The family moved often and it was difficult for Du Bois to keep up in school, but she graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, Washington, in 1915. She entered Oberlin College in 1931 to study music, receiving her AB degree in 1934 and a master's in music the following year. She also nearly completed her doctorate in English and education at New York University.

In 1932, while still a student at Oberlin, Du Bois's musical drama Tom Tom premiered at the summer festival, "Stadium Opera," in Cleveland, Ohio. The work was hailed as "not only great in conception and splendidly executed, but that it was a new opera, something different from what has preceded it in history." Following a year of teaching at Tennessee Agricultural in Nashville, she was appointed by the Illinois Federal Theatre Project as director-supervisor of Federal Theatre #3, the "Negro Unit" of the Chicago Federal Theatre, where she put on wildly successful productions, such as Little Black Sambo and Swing Mikado. She founded, with her brother Bill, the Graham Artists Bureau in Chicago with the purpose of securing bookings for African American artists. From 1941 to 1943, Du Bois worked for the USO, directing operations for African American troops at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. Beginning in 1943 she began serving as a field secretary for the N.A.A.C.P. Du Bois was also a prolific writer and speaker.

Her romantic involvement with W.E.B. Du Bois began in the mid- or late 1930s, and they were married in 1951. Together, the Du Boises worked tirelessly to improve the lot of underrepresented groups in the United States, increasingly through their involvement in left causes and groups, probably including the Communist Party of the USA. Shortly after their wedding in 1951, W.E.B. Du Bois was indicted for "un-American" activities. Although he was acquitted for insufficient evidence, the Du Boises were frustrated by the harassment and with the lack of progress in the United States. They immigrated to Ghana in 1961.

After her husband's death in 1963, Shirley Graham Du Bois moved to Cairo in 1966 and she lived with her son from her first marriage, David (Graham) Du Bois. She continued to devote herself to causes of liberation, African peoples, women, African Americans, and people of color worldwide. She died of cancer in Beijing in 1977.