Shirley Graham Du Bois
November 11, 1896 – March 27, 1977
Notable: Author, Playwright, and Activist
Lola Shirley Graham was born into a religious family in Evansville, Indiana. Her mother Etta Bell Graham was a housewife and activist while her father David Graham was an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister. With David working as a minister, the family relocated to various parts of America as he accepted positions within different churches. During her childhood, Graham would also live in Louisiana, Tennessee, Colorado, and Washington state.
Despite these moves, Graham had some constants in her early life such as being a present member in her community, a dedication to education, and an interest in music. Another constant which would last throughout her life was protesting injustice. At the age of 13, Graham was barred from swimming in a pool at the YMCA and wrote an editorial to the local newspaper in protest of this blatant act of discrimination. She also wrote in protest of her father and other Black people’s right to attend a local Christian revival meeting.
Graham graduated from high school in Spokane, Washington in 1914 after which she began working while taking business classes. As a child, Graham played the piano and organ in her father’s churches and now continued to explore her interest in music by playing the organ in music theaters. Her formal education was put on hold when she married Shadrach McCants a few years later and gave birth to two sons. Yet, she managed to continue her music career directing choirs and quartets and in one instance joining a tour on the west coast. The marriage ended in the 1920s but the year and cause are unclear as some sources state she was widowed in 1924 while others state the couple divorced in 1929.
Either way, at some point in the 1920s, Graham became a single mother with two young sons. In 1926, her father accepted a position as the president of a college in Liberia and passed through Paris. Graham accompanied her parents on the trip but remained in Paris where she studied music while they continued on to Liberia.
After a year abroad, Graham returned to America and enrolled at Howard University where she spent some time continuing her music studies. She then spent two years teaching in Baltimore at Morgan College. Graham resumed her studies at Oberlin College from which she would obtain bachelor’s (1934) and master’s (1935) degrees.
While studying at Oberlin, Graham wrote and produced Tom-Toms: An Epic of Music and The Negro. 10,000 people were in attendance when the show debuted at the Cleveland Stadium in 1932 and the crowd grew by 5,000 for the second performance. The show was notable not only for the size of the audience but also because it made Graham the first Black American woman to write, produce, and compose an opera with an all-Black cast.
That experience resulted in her later leading the fine arts department at the Agricultural and Industrial State College in Nashville (now TSU). She then moved on to teaching and directing with the Federal Theatre Project and later the Chicago Negro Unit. Graham continued writing and producing plays, completing six projects in about three years.
As the Great Depression gave way to World War II, Graham contributed to the war effort by serving as Director of the YWCA-USO at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. Fort Huachuca was a military base that housed thousands of Black servicemen and servicewomen for which the YWCA-USO was responsible for providing entertainment. There were incidents of racial discrimination on the base and Graham became involved with protests. She was fired from her position in retaliation for publicly speaking out against these injustices.
The year after her dismissal, Graham’s oldest son died after receiving inadequate medical care at an army recruiting station. These events motivated Graham to become more deeply involved with activism. She had an ongoing correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois and at least in part through that connection secured a position as Field Secretary for the NAACP. It was around this time that Graham also began writing a series of full-length biographies about notable figures from Black history. Written with young adults as its intended readers, by its end the collection would have a total of 13 titles for which Graham won a fellowship and award.
W.E.B. Du Bois’ wife died in 1950 after 54 years of marriage (they had married the same year that Graham was born). A year later while W.E.B. was under suspicion of working as an agent for a foreign state he and Graham secretly married. She was 55 while he was 83. The couple would spend the next decade fending off legal attacks during the period of McCarthyism and the early years of the FBI’s COINTELPRO. The constant pressure eventually resulted in them relocating to Ghana in the early 1960s where W.E.B. died in 1963.
Graham Du Bois had become a citizen of Ghana and remained in the country until shortly after the overthrow of President Kwame Nkrumah in 1966. She relocated to Tanzania before moving to Cairo where her only remaining son was working as a journalist. The next decade would see Graham Du Bois traveling around the world, writing, and publishing while continuing her work as an activist for liberation and equality across the Black diaspora.
In the mid-1970s, Shirley Graham Du Bois was diagnosed with breast cancer and in 1976 traveled to China for treatment where she died in Beijing in 1977.
- Jackson, Errin. 2007. “Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896 – 1977).” Blackpast.org. March 19, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/dubois-shirley-graham-1896-1977/.
- Lewis, Jone Johnson. 2018. “Shirley Graham Du Bois: Civil Rights Activist, Composer, Writer.” ThoughtCo. Dotdash Meredith. March 4, 2018. https://www.thoughtco.com/shirley-graham-du-bois-biography-3528284.
- “Shirley Graham Du Bois: Brief Life Story.” 2021. Roundabout Theatre Company. May 4, 2021. https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/about/our-blog/shirley-graham-du-bois-brief-life-story/.
- “Shirley Graham Dubois (1896-1977) (U.S. National Park Service).” 2021. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. January 13, 2021. https://www.nps.gov/people/shirleygrahamdubois-1896-1977.htm.
- “Shirley Graham Dubois, Composer, Novelist, and Activist Born.” 2021. African American Registry. November 11, 2021. https://aaregistry.org/story/shirley-graham-dubois-composer-playwright-novelist-activist/.
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