Biography of Shirley Graham Du Bois

Writer, Musical Composer, Civil Rights Activist

Shirley Graham Du Bois
Shirley Graham Du Bois, by Carl Van Vechten. Carl Van Vechten, Courtesy Library of Congress

Shirley Graham Du Bois is known for her civil rights work and for her writings especially about African American and African historical figures. Her second husband was W.E.B. Du Bois. She became something of a pariah in American civil rights circles with her later association with communism, leading to much neglect of her role in Black American history

Early Years and First Marriage

Shirley Graham was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1896, daughter of a minister who held positions in Louisiana, Colorado and the state of Washington. She developed an interest in music, and often played piano and organ at her father’s churches.

After she graduated from high school in 1914 in Spokane, she took business courses and worked in offices in Washington.  She also played organ in music theatres; the theatres were whites-only but she remained backstage.

In 1921, she married and soon had two sons. The marriage ended – according to some accounts, she was widowed in 1924, though other sources have the marriage ending in divorce in 1929.

Evolving Career

Now a single mother of two young boys, she traveled with her parents to Paris in 1926 when her father was en route to a new job in Liberia as president of a college there. In Paris, she studied music, and when she came back to the states, she briefly attended Howard University to study music there.  From 1929 to 1931 she taught at Morgan College, then returned to her studies at Oberlin College. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1934 and earned her master’s degree in 1935.

She was hired by the Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State College in Nashville to lead their fine arts department. After a year, she left to join a project of the Works Project Administration’s Federal Theatre Project, and served as director in 1936 to 1938 of the Chicago Negro Unit where she taught and directed plays.

With a creative writing scholarship, she then began a Ph.D. program at Yale, writing plays that saw production, using that medium to explore racism.  She did not complete the program, and instead went to work for the YWCA.  First she directed theatre work in Indianapolis, then went to Arizona to supervise a theatre group sponsored by the YWCA and USO at a base with 30,000 Black soldiers.

Racial discrimination at the base led to Graham becoming involved in activism for civil rights, and she lost her job over that in 1942.  The next year, her son Robert died at an army recruiting station, receiving poor medical treatment, and that increased her commitment to work against discrimination.

W.E.B. Du Bois

Looking for some employment, she contacted civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois whom she’d met through her parents when she was in her twenties, and who was almost 29 years older than she was.  She had been corresponding with him for a few years, and hoped that he could help her find work.  She was hired as the NAACP field secretary in New York City in 1943.  She wrote magazine articles and biographies of Black heroes to be read by young adults.

W.E.B. Du Bois had married his first wife, Nina Gomer, in 1896, the same year Shirley Graham was born.  She died in 1950.  That year, Du Bois ran for Senator in New York on the American Labor Party ticket.  He had become an advocate of communism, believing it was better than capitalism for people of color globally, while recognizing that the Soviet Union also had faults.  But this was the era of McCarthyism, and government, beginning with the FBI keeping track of him in 1942, pursued him aggressively.  In 1950, Du Bois became chairman of an organization to oppose nuclear weapons, the Peace Information Center, which advocated for petitions to governments globally.  The U.S. Justice Department considered the PIC as an agent of a foreign state and when Du Bois and others refused to register the organization as such, the government filed charges.  W.E.B. Du Bois was indicted on February 9 as an unregistered foreign agent.  On February 14, he secretly married Shirley Graham, who took his name; as his wife, she could visit him in jail if he was jailed, though the government decided not to jail him.  On February 27, their marriage was repeated in a formal public ceremony.  The groom was 83 years old, the bride 55.  She had, at some point, begun giving an age about ten years younger than her real age;  her new husband talked of a marrying a second wife “forty years” younger than he was.

Shirley Graham Du Bois’ son, David, became close to his stepfather, and eventually changed his last name to Du Bois and worked with him.  She continued to write, now under her new married name. Her husband had been prevented from attending a 1955 conference in Indonesia of 29 non-aligned nations that was the result of years of his own vision and efforts, but in 1958, his passport was restored.  The couple then traveled together, including to Russia and China.

McCarthy Era and Exile

When the U.S. upheld the McCarran Act in 1961, W.E.B. Du Bois formally and publicly joined the Communist Party as a protest. The year before, the couple had visited Ghana and Nigeria. In 1961, the government of Ghana invited W.E.B. Du Bois to head up a project to create an encyclopedia of the African diaspora, and Shirley and W.E.B. moved to Ghana.  In 1963, the United States refused to renew his passport; Shirley’s passport was also not renewed, and they were unwelcome in their home country.  W.E.B. Du Bois became a citizen of Ghana in protest.  Later that year, in August, he died in Accra in Ghana, and was buried there.  The day after his death, the 1963 March on Washington held a moment of silence in honor of Du Bois.

Shirley Graham Du Bois, now widowed and without a U.S. passport, took a job as director of Ghana Television.  In 1967 she moved to Egypt.  The United State government permitted her to visit the U.S. in 1971 and 1975.  In 1973, she sold her husband’s papers to the University of Massachusetts to raise funds.  In 1976, diagnosed with breast cancer, she went to China for treatment, and died there in March of 1977.

Background, Family:

  • Mother: Etta Bell
  • Father: Rev. David A. Graham, minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church
  • Siblings:


  • Public schools
  • Business school
  • Howard University, music
  • Oberlin College, A.B. in music, 1934, M.A. in 1935
  • Yale Drama School 1938-1940, Ph.D. program, left before completing the degree

Marriage, Children:

  1. Husband: Shadrach T. McCanns (married 1921; divorced in 1929 or widowed in 1924, sources differ).  Children: Robert, David
  2. Husband: W.E.B. Du Bois (married February 14, 1951, with a public ceremony February 27; widowed 1963). No children.

Occupation: writer, musical composer, activist 
Dates: November 11, 1896 – March 27, 1977
Also known as: Shirley Graham, Shirley McCanns, Lola Bell Graham

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Your Citation
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Shirley Graham Du Bois." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Biography of Shirley Graham Du Bois. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Biography of Shirley Graham Du Bois." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).