Shirley Graham Du Bois

Shirley Graham Du Bois (November 11, 1896 – March 27, 1977) was an American-born author, playwright, composer, and activist for African-American and other causes, as well as spouse of noted African-American thinker, writer, and activist W. E. B. Du Bois.


She was born Lola Shirley Graham in Evansville, Indiana, in 1896, but often gave her age as up to ten years younger. Her father was an African Methodist Episcopal minister, and the family moved often. In June 1915, Shirley graduated from Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, Washington.

She married her first husband, Shadrach T. McCants, in 1921, and divorced him in 1927. (In her memoir, however, she had asserted that she was widowed by 1925.) Their son Daniel was born in 1923, followed by David in 1925. In 1929, she relocated to Paris, France to study music composition. She reasoned that this education might allow her to achieve better employment and be able to better support her children.

In the late 1940s, Graham became a member of Sojourners for Truth and Justice – an African-American organization concerned with the global women’s liberation.

Approximately around the same time, she joined the American Communist Party.

She and Du Bois married in 1951, the second marriage for both. 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’etat, and moved to Cairo, Egypt, where she continued writing. Her surviving son accompanied her and worked as a journalist.

She died of breast cancer on March 27, 1977 in Beijing, China, where she had gone for treatment.


Her own books have been a little overshadowed by her husband’s prodigious body of work, but His Day is Moving On and Du Bois: A Pictorial Biography (see further reading) are essential items for all Du Bois students, and she is herself the subject of a book, Race Woman, by Gerald Horne.

Selections from her correspondence with her husband (both before and after their relationship began) appears in the three volumes, Correspondence of W.E.B Du Bois, and shows her to have a lively, engaging nature with quirks enough to rival those of her famous spouse.

Her books on Paul Robeson and Kwame Nkrumah are often seen as interesting by virtue of her personal knowledge of her subjects. She also wrote, with George D. Lipscomb, Vineyards in the Sun; a story about George Washington Carver. Ironically, given her second husband’s rivalry with her subject, one of her many books was a biography of Booker T. Washington.
In addition to her biographies of black and/or third world personalities (Frederick Douglas, Gamal Abdul Nasser, Phylis Wheatley, Julius Nyerere and many others), she composed a musical, Tom Tom, and also wrote three plays and a novel.

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