Shirley Graham Du Bois was born on November 11, 1896 in Indianapolis Indiana, the only girl among six brothers. Noted for writing the first race opera, the future Mrs. Du Bois was an illustrious musician, singer, musical director, writer, and lecturer prior to marrying Du Bois. Her early life is characterized by frequent moves to different parts of the country, giving the young Shirley Graham a deep appreciation for the realities of blacks in America at the turn of the 20th century. Her father, Rev. Graham, and mother Etta Bell Graham were active leaders in the African Methodist Episcopal congregation, providing an example of activism for social justice.
Sometime in the early 1920s, Shirley Graham married first husband, Shadrach McCants, with whom she had two boys. Robert was born in 1923 and David in 1925. She divorced her first husband sometime around 1927, although she stated in her autobiography and in numerous interviews that she was widowed. In 1928, Shirley studied theories of musical composition and orchestration at Paris’ Sorbonne, becoming fluent in French. After leaving France, Graham toured around the country as a music instructor at Morgan College educating and inspiring an appreciation for the contributions of Black music to music at large. During this time, she continued her studies at Howard School of Music and the Institute of Musical Arts in New York City. In 1931, she began to see the importance of plays as a site of social activism and applied to Oberlin College. She argued, “the stage, whether it was through the medium of music or plays was a space where Negros could contest through their art, the distorted perceptions and/or images of them”. Shirley Graham’s opera Tom Tom debuted in Cleveland in 1932. The story follows the lives of four archetypical characters: The Voo Doo Man, The Mother, The Girl, and The Boy from Africa through the middle passage to North America, where they “undergo acculturation and fuse their traditional African ethos with a developing and ever evolving American ethos which results in new cultural forms, artistic expressions, utterances and musical forms.” Shirley Graham wanted the opera to be both educational and inspirational. Heralded as an “epic of music and the Negro race,” Tom Tom became the nation’s first race opera. While the opera received stellar reviews and garnered much anticipation for upcoming shows in other cities, the opera was unable to secure the necessary funding due to the economic effects of the Depression. After earning her Bachelor’s degree in 1934, Graham continued on to do graduate work. Her Master’s thesis, “The Survival of Africanisms in Modern Music” argued that European music was influenced by African music. Upon completion of her degree, Graham began work as the Director of the Black unit of the Federal Theatre Project, a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. Shirley and Du Bois were comrades in the fight for social justice and black social mobility. She maintained a relationship with Du Bois, whose beginnings are difficult to trace with accuracy. She would often communicate with leading figures of the day, including Du Bois, sharing her work and receiving their critique. In fact, Shirley even had Du Bois proof read her Master’s thesis. Interestingly, after achieving success as a playwright and director for Chicago’s black unit of the Federal Theatre Project, Du Bois began sending his plays to her for critique!
Shirley Graham authored seven plays, Tom Tom (1932), It’s Morning (1937), Cold Dust (1939), Dust to Earth (1940), I Gotta Home (1939), Elijah’s Raven’s (1940), and Track 13 (1940). In 1941, Shirley became the head of the USO in Fort Huachuca in Arizona. There she was “responsible for boosting the morale of black soldiers and infusing entertainment into their lives;” perhaps more importantly, she served as an advocate between the servicemen and the higher authorities within the military establishment.” This experience culminated in a 1942 article, “The Negro and World War II.” Two years later, she became field secretary for the NAACP, where she traveled along the east coast assisting local leaders and recruiting new members. During this time, she transitioned from writing music and plays to writing children’s books. Her first biography was George Washington Carver: Scientist. She continued to write biographies of friend Paul Robeson, Frederick Douglass, Benjamin Banneker, and Phyllis Wheatley. She completed a total of eight children’s biographies between 1943 and 1955.
Shirley Graham’s relationship to Du Bois intensified upon her arrival to New York in 1947. The two married in February 1951, after decades of correspondence and shortly after Du Bois’ first wife passed away. In an interview Shirley’s son David credits his mother with broadening Du Bois’ influences. She helped him to achieve wider promotion among white audiences. Prior to Shirley, Du Bois focused his efforts within the black community. After Du Bois’ death in 1963, she worked to develop a national telecommunications infrastructure in Ghana with Ghana television. Shirley Graham Du Bois continued to work for Pan Africanism and Civil Rights until her death on March 27, 1977 in Beijing China, after going there for breast cancer treatment.
Credit: McFadden, Alesia. (2009). The Artistry and Activism of Shirley Graham Du Bois: A Twentieth Century African American Torchbearer. [Doctoral dissertation] Retrieved from U Mass Libraries.