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Shirley (Graham) Du Bois was born November 11th in Indianapolis, Indiana; this much is known. The exact year of her birth, however, has been uncertain. At various times in her life, she asserted the year to be 1896, 1899, 1902, 1904, 1906, and 1907. Gerald Horne in his biography, Race Woman, states "she was born Lola Shirley Graham on 11 November 1896, but at points in her life she shaved as much as ten years from her true age (38)."

Her father, Rev. 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. DAG and EBG were married November 21, 1895, following the death of his first wife, Lorena Mason. While references in the collection are often elusive and contradictory, it is most likely that DAG had three sons with LMG, and five children with EBG: Lola (Shirley), David A.(born 1900), Lorenz B. (born 1902), Aurelius R.("William," born 1907), and Orval B. (born 1913?). DAG had assignments in Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Chicago, Detroit, Tennessee, Colorado Springs, Louisiana, Spokane, and Seattle before being appointed President of Monrovia College in Monrovia, Liberia, in 1926. Upon his return to the United States in ca. 1930, he and EBG lived in Indiana, Michigan, and Minnesota, among other places. A deeply religious man, he was also somewhat of a firebrand as a minister; his sermons were often political in nature and touched on such topics as the N.A.A.C.P. and the struggle for civil rights. His outspoken manner may have contributed to his being required to move so often throughout his ministerial career. A brother-in-law, Bishop W. Sampson Brooks, was a prominent figure in the A.M.E. Church.

With her family's frequent moves, it was difficult for Shirley to keep up in school, but she did graduate from Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, Washington, in 1915. In 1918 she married Shadrach McCants. They had two sons: Robert (born 1923), and David (born 1925). Although SGD usually claimed that she was widowed shortly after David's birth, she actually obtained a divorce in Portland, Oregon, in 1927. Her children were raised largely by her mother.

Now calling herself Shirley McCanns, SGD attended classes at the Howard University School of Music (1927-1928), the Institute of Musical Arts in New York City (1929), and the Sorbonne (1929-1930). During this period she traveled extensively, and also taught music at Morgan College (now Morgan State University) in Baltimore, and served as a music librarian at Howard. She entered Oberlin College in 1931 to study music, receiving her A.B. degree in 1934 and a master's in music the following year. She taught fine arts at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial Normal School for Negroes (now Tennessee State) from 1935 to 1936; this experience seems to have soured her on a career in teaching. Always intending to continue her intellectual pursuits, she continued to study, taking classes at Yale and New York universities in the 1940s; she came close to completing her doctorate in English and education at NYU.

SGD's employment path was as varied and hectic as her educational one. In 1932, while still a student at Oberlin, her 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 her 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 SGD worked for the USO, directing operations for Negro troops at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. Beginning in 1943 she began serving as a field secretary for the N.A.A.C.P. Her volunteer activities included serving as a trustee of the Rosenberg Children's Trust Fund and starting a fund for financial aid for singer Hope Foye.

In 1944 her son Robert died in a military hospital; throughout her life, SGD harbored feelings that the military was responsible for his death, due to lack of care afforded him on account of his race.

Throughout her career, SGD was a prolific writer. Well known for her many juvenile and adult biographies on the lives of great leaders, she wrote not only about famous African American figures such as George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass and Paul Robeson, but also about Gamal Nasser, Julius Nyerere and Pocahontas. In the late 1940s SGD got a Guggenheim grant to write extensively on the life of Anne Newport Royall (1769-1854), a newspaper woman who gained notoriety by traveling extensively throughout the country publishing her shrewd observations on the "history, life and manners" of many major cities and towns. This work was never published. Her memoir of WEBD, His Day Is Marching On, was published in 1971.

An avid writer and speaker, SGD also gave innumerable speeches and published articles on a variety of subjects throughout her life. Articles such as "Minorities in China," and "We Too Want Peace," a reflection on women and world peace published in Soviet Women, are examples of the global issues SGD tried to address throughout her career. In 1961, she founded the civil rights magazine, Freedomways, and became head editor. SGD also wrote on such topics as Ghana, Egypt and the Middle East, African unity, the People's Republic of China, and American-Soviet relations.

Her romantic life was checkered; after the dissolution of her marriage to McCants, she had a number of romantic interests, some of which are documented in the collection. There is evidence that she was engaged to Joseph Himes in 1932, although she broke off the relationship soon afterwards. Her romantic involvement with W.E.B. Du Bois seems to have begun in the mid or late 1930s; certainly by 1941 their relationship was no longer platonic. Following the death of WEBD's first wife, Nina, in October 1950, he and SGD were married February 27, 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 U.S.A. Shortly after their wedding in 1951, WEBD was indicted for "un-American" activities. Although WEBD was acquitted for insufficient evidence, the Du Boises were frustrated with lack of progress in the United States. After being harassed endlessly by U.S. officials, they decided to emigrate to Ghana in 1961, where WEBD was invited to create the multi-volume Encyclopedia Africana, a work that was not completed until recent years.

After his death in 1963, SGD worked for some time developing the field of telecommunications in Ghana with Ghana Television. This work included not only developing facilities such as studio space, but also training technicians and other staff, and developing a national infrastructure to handle the new communications medium. After the coup in 1966 that resulted in the unseating of Ghanaian president, Kwame Nkrumah, SGD moved to Cairo where she lived with her son, David (Graham) Du Bois. SGD continued to devote herself to causes of liberation, of African peoples, women, African Americans, and people of color worldwide. She died of cancer in Beijing in 1977.

For further biographical information, see Gerald Horne, Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois (2000).

The following is a short bibliography of SGD's books in chronological order:

George Washington Carver, Scientist. (co-written with George Dewey Lipscomb) New York: Julian Messner, Inc., 1944 Paul Robeson, Citizen of the World. New York: Julian Messner, 1946 There Once Was a Slave...the Heroic Story of Frederick Douglass. New York: Julian Messner, 1947 "Naiveté, the Story of Anne Royall" unpublished, c.1947 Your Most Humble Servant. New York: Julian Messner, 1949 The Story of Phillis Wheatley. New York: Julian Messner, 1949 Jean Baptiste du Sable: Founder of Chicago. New York: Julian Messner, 1953 The Story of Pocahontas, 1953 Booker T. Washington; Educator of Hand, Head and Heart. New York: Julian Messner, 1955 His Day Is Marching On. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1971 Gamal Abdel Nasser, Son of the Nile; A Biography. New York: Third Press, 1972 Zulu Heart. New York: Third Press, 1974 Julius K. Nyerere, Teacher of Africa. New York: Julian Messner, 1975

From the guide to the Papers, (inclusive), (bulk), 1865-1998, 1905-1975, (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Papers of Shirley Graham Du Bois, 1865-1998 (inclusive), 1905-1975 (bulk) Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Abbott Simon. person
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associatedWith Aptheker, Herbert, 1915- person
associatedWith Aronson, James, 1953- person
associatedWith Artz, Frederick Binkerd, 1894- person
associatedWith Bailey, Herman person
associatedWith Baker, Josephine, 1906-1975 person
associatedWith Belfrage, Cedric, 1904- person
correspondedWith Ben and Ethel Schub. person
associatedWith Benn, Brindley. person
associatedWith B. M. Phillips person
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correspondedWith Burroughs, Margaret person
associatedWith Burroughs, Margaret Taylor, 1917- person
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associatedWith Davis, Ossie person
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associatedWith Dickinson, Edward person
associatedWith Dodd, Martha person
associatedWith Du Bois, David Graham person
associatedWith Du Bois, W. E. B., (William Edward Burghardt), 1868-1963 person
associatedWith Dunbar, Paul L. person
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associatedWith Esther Jackson person
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associatedWith Foner, Philip Sheldon, 1910- person
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associatedWith Funabayashi, K. person
associatedWith Gamal Abel Nasser. person
associatedWith Garth Cate person
correspondedWith George Shepperton person
associatedWith Glenn Bruce person
associatedWith Graham, David A. person
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associatedWith Graham, Lorenz B. person
associatedWith Graham, Orval person
associatedWith Graham, William person
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associatedWith Hansberry, Lorraine, 1930-1965 person
associatedWith Harding, Vincent person
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correspondedWith Harold Cruse person
associatedWith Harold S. Dorsey. person
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correspondedWith Henry Ford, Sr. person
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associatedWith Huang, Hua person
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associatedWith Lewis, Reba person
correspondedWith Lil Landau. person
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correspondedWith Mao Tse-tung person
associatedWith Margaret Christy. person
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associatedWith Martha Bell Brooks person
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associatedWith Nelson, Truman John, 1912- person
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associatedWith Nnamdi Azikiwe. person
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associatedWith Partington, Paul G. person
associatedWith Patterson, William person
associatedWith Paul Lawrence Dunbar person
correspondedWith Paul Partington person
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associatedWith Powell, Adam Clayton, 1908-1972 person
associatedWith Prattis, Percival Leroy, 1895-1980 person
associatedWith Pruitt, Ida person
associatedWith Queen Mother Moore person
associatedWith Rachel Davis Du Bois person
associatedWith Reitsch, Hanna person
associatedWith Robeson, Eslanda Goode, 1896-1965 person
associatedWith Robeson, Paul, 1898-1976 person
associatedWith Rodman, Seldon person
correspondedWith Roosevelt, Eleanor person
associatedWith Roosevelt, Eleanor, 1884-1962 person
associatedWith R. R. Moton person
associatedWith Ruth Morris Graham person
associatedWith Sanchez, Sonia, 1935- person
correspondedWith Simon, Abby person
associatedWith Soloff, Sylvia person
associatedWith Spingarn, Arthur B. (Arthur Barnett), 1878-1971 person
associatedWith Steve Minium person
associatedWith Stevens, Richard P. person
associatedWith Strong, Anna Louise, 1885-1970 person
correspondedWith United Public Workers of America corporateBody
associatedWith United Service Organizations (U.S.) corporateBody
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associatedWith Wallace, Henry Agard, 1888-1965 person
associatedWith Waters, Ethel, 1896-1977 person
associatedWith White, Walter Francis, 1893-1955 person
associatedWith Wilkins, Roy, 1901- person
associatedWith Winter, Ella person
correspondedWith Works Progress Administration corporateBody
Place Name Admin Code Country
African American families


Birth 1896

Death 1977

Related Descriptions


Ark ID: w6fc946d

SNAC ID: 36255140