The important work and contributions of women in many societies around the world is often overlooked and ignored. The contributions made by Shirley Graham Du Bois to American history, culture, politics, and the attention she brought to the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles remains one of the many secrets left out in historical discourses. Shirley Graham, her name before she married the famed scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, was a renowned author, composer, playwright, and activist long before she met her husband. Shirley Graham married the eighty-two year old Du Bois in 1951, the couple moved permanently to Ghana ten years later in 1961. Shirley Graham was born in the USA in 1896; she died a Tanzanian citizen in China in 1977.
Long before her death in Beijing, China in 1977, Shirley Graham had become an enemy of the state for the USA. Her FBI file had 1,068 pages, more than 300 pages longer than that of her husband W.E.B. Du Bois. She was a subject of FBI surveillance from the 1940s to 1970s. Shirley was versatile in Italian, German, French, and even a little Russian. She learned some Arabic and Chinese later in her life.
Shirley Graham was born in 1896 in Indianapolis, Indiana. She was the only daughter in a family of six. Her father, David Andrew Graham, was an African Methodist Episcopal minister. Her mother was Lizzie Etta Bell. The family moved around the US frequently; they lived in Indiana, Colorado, Louisiana, and her father, lived in Liberia from 1924 to 1928 where he worked as a teacher at Monrovia College. Shirley Graham travelled to France in late 1920s to pursue her education in music. She returned to the US in 1930s and became a teacher at Morgan College in Maryland. She joined Oberlin College in 1931 and earned a B.A. degree in 1934, followed by a M.A. Degree in 1935. Her M.A. thesis was entitled "Survivals of Africanism in Modern Music." Shirley Graham wrote an opera called "Tom-Tom" which she produced in Cleveland in 1932. This was the first all-black opera produced on a large scale with professional cast of about five hundred actors. It was the first opera produced by an African American woman. She moved to Tennessee in 1935 and taught at Tennessee State College in Nashville. Shirley Graham became the Director of the Chicago Negro Unit of the Federal Theater Project in 1936. She wrote and directed music, including the successful production of "Little Black Sambo." She was awarded the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship for creative writing and spent two years at Yale School of Drama between 1938 and 1940. Her three act plays "Dust to Earth" was produced in 1941. Her radio play "Track Thirteen" was played on the radio.
The 1940s was a period of prolific writing for Shirley Graham. She co-authored a biography entitled Dr. George Washington Carver in 1944. She authored several biographies for young people. She wrote Paul Robeson, Citizen of the World in 1946 followed by a novel entitled Once a Slave on the life of Frederick Douglas. Her book won the Julian Messner award for the "best book combating intolerance in America." She published Your Most Humble Servant: Benjamin Banner in 1949, and finally, three more critically acclaimed biographies of Booker T. Washington, Phillis Wheatley, and Pocahantos.
The struggle for women's rights was very important for Shirley Graham. She became involved in an organization fighting for women's rights in the 1940s called Sojourners for Truth and Justice. She worked for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and was fired for defending two African Americans.
Shirley Graham embraced progressive leftist politics in the 1940s. She became a socialist and pushed for revolutionary changes. She joined the American Communist party in the 1940s. Her activism attracted the attention of local police and the FBI who kept her under close surveillance in the 1940s. An FBI report from 1947 states: "On February 11, 1947, Confidential Informant advised that SHIRLEY GRAHAM addressed a meeting of the George Washington Carver School, Communist Party front organization, located at 67 West 125th Street, New York City." In the era of the rising tension between the East and the West in the post World War II era and the subsequent Cold War, Shirley Graham was embracing a position that placed her in a collision course with the US establishment. Shirley Graham had made her name as a scholar and activist by the end of the 1940s.
The 1950s would prove to be a challenging period for Shirley Graham. The rise of Mccarthyism in the early 1950s was particularly difficult for those who embraced leftist politics and challenged US local and international policies. Shirley Graham married the 83 year old W.E.B. Du Bois on February 27, 1951 at Queens, New York. She was fifty-four years old at the time of the marriage. She changed her name to Shirley Graham Du Bois. Shirley Graham Du Bois devoted considerable time and efforts supporting her husband during the period they were married from 1951 to 1963 when he died. The US government made it difficult for the couple to operate freely in the 1950s in the US. The US government confiscated Shirley Graham's passport from 1950 to 1958; the government also confiscated the passport of W.E.B. Du Bois during that same period.
The US government decided to grant passports to Shirley Graham Du Bois and her husband in 1958. The couple wanted to attend the All-African Peoples' Conference (AAPC) in Accra, Ghana. Shirley Graham Du Bois presented a paper on behalf of her husband at the AAPC entitled "The Future of All-Africa Lies in Socialism." The couple travelled from Africa to USSR, Eastern Europe, and China in 1959 before returning to the US. The travel to the Communist bloc angered US government officials. The State Department revoked their passports. Shirley Graham Du Bois and her husband appealed for their passports in 1960. Shirley Graham Du Bois stated her reason for the appeal for her passport as the desire to attend the Women of Africa and African Descent conference. There was another reason the couple wanted to travel to Ghana; they had received official state invitation to attend the celebration of the founding of the Republic of Ghana. W.E.B Du Bois had a long friendship with the then President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah. As two champions of Pan Africanism, Du Bois and Nkrumah had worked together in the 1945 Pan African Congress in Manchester, UK. Nkrumah lived in the US between 1935 and 1945; attended a historical black college-Lincoln University-where he earned a B.A. Later he joined Penn State and earned an M.A. degree. The friendship between Nkrumah and the couple grew in the end of the 1950s.
Shirley Graham Du Bois and her husband sold their house at 31 Grace Court, Brooklyn New York in the second half of 1961. The couple left the US on October 5, 1961 for the UK, and on October 10, from UK to Ghana. The couple had reached a point of no return; they renounced their US citizenship and became Ghanian citizens in 1961.
Ghana was an important destination for African Americans in the first half of the 1960s. Nkrumah opened up the doors for African Americans. Unfortunately, W.E.B. Du Bois died in Ghana in 1963 and was buried there. It was an end to one of America’s most prolific black author, scholar, activist; a long and successful career started with his PhD dissertation from Harvard University in 1895 entitled Suppression of the African Slave Trade followed by numerous seminal books on black history. For Shirley Graham Du Bois, the death marked the beginning of a new chapter. She became a trusted advisor to Nkrumah and a mother figure to many African Americans who went into exile in Ghana. Malcolm X spent time with Shirley Graham when he was in Accra in 1964. She spoke of Malcolm as her son. Stokely Carmichael or Kwame Ture as he would become known as, referred to her as "grandma."
Her work in Ghana came to an abrupt end in February 1966. Kwame Nkrumah was removed from power in coup many have come to believe was partly engineered by the US. This was a turning point for Shirley Graham Du Bois. The new government was not friendly to African Americans living in Ghana who were close to Nkrumah. Shirley Graham decided to leave Ghana. There were several places she considered to settle down permanently in the next few years, even after she decided to settle down in Cairo, Egypt. She visited Tanzania in 1966 and developed a close friendship with the President of Tanzania Julius Nyerere. She considered moving to Tanzania, and at other points, she considered Algeria, East Germany, Mexico, France, and China. However, she decided to settle down in Cairo.
Once again, Shirley Graham Du Bois turned to her pen and paper to educate the masses through her writings. She wrote numerous books, countless articles and spoke at many conferences and events. She wrote a biography of her late husband W.E.B. Du Bois entitled His Day Marching On in 1971. She published a book in 1975 on Julius Nyerere entitled Julius K. Nyerere, Teacher of Africa. During the 1970s, she wrote and presented papers on Ancient Egyptian history, more specifically, her worked centered Ancient Egyptian history in black Africa.
Shirley Graham was very concerned in the end of 1969 about her ability to travel internationally. She was traveling on a Guinea passport that was about to expire. Prior to that, she had Ghana passport and the Ghanian officials refused to renew it when it expired. She was having similar difficulties renewing her Guinea passport. The officials of United Arab Republic (Egypt) were hesitant to issue her a passport or a travel document. She was stuck. There was one country she decided to turn to: Tanzania. Shirley Graham Du Bois approached the Tanzanian Ambassador in UAR sometime in the end of 1969 and asked for a Tanzanian passport. The Ambassador inquired with Dar es Salaam and was given permission to issue a travel document for Shirley Graham Du Bois. The Tanzanian Ambassador approached the US Consulate officials in Cairo in December 1969 and asked if the US would issue Shirley Graham Du Bois a visa to travel to the US. He assured the Americans that UAR would accept the travel document when she completed her tour of the US and returned to UAR. The Americans were reluctant to issue her a visa. It would take considerable pressure from the US African American community, a threat of a legal court case, for the State Department to eventually issue her a visa to the US.
Shirley Graham Du Bois travelled to the US numerous times in the 1970s. She travelled to the US first on Tanzanian Certificate of Identity, and starting in 1972, she travelled on a Tanzanian passport number 16776. She travelled to Tanzania in 1973 to do research on a book on Nyerere. In Dar es Salaam, she attended the Saba Saba celebrations and was impressed by the multitude of people who came to hear Nyerere speak. She was impressed by the history of Tanzania's struggle for independence and the efforts by Nyerere to build and develop the new nation. Shirley Du Bois spent time with the Pan Africanist revolutionary Abdulrahman Babu; she was a frequent guest at his house during her short stay Tanzania.
The visit to Tanzania in 1973 was a successful one for Shirley Graham. Nyerere's daughter, Watiku Anna, was one of her guide when she toured one of the Ujamaa villages. But it was the audience she had with President Nyerere at his residence in Msasani that became the highlight of her visit to Tanzania. Nyerere protested to Shirley Graham about writing a book on him. Nyerere told her "I still don't see why you'd want to write a book about me.." she would write in her book on Nyerere. "Books should be written about great men and women-those who accomplish great things... what has greatness have to do with me?" The question was a testament to Nyerere’s modesty. Shirley Graham noted as she left Nyerere's residence that Nyerere and his wife were holding hands as they waved good bye to her. The observation, which she chose to end her book on, was significant. She ends the book with a last sentence that concludes on her observation of Nyerere and his wife holding hands waving goodbye to her: “Well, I thought Ujamaa really begins in that home.” Here she was in Tanzania, a Tanzanian citizen, learning about a country from one of the best minds that country had produced. Tanzania had welcomed her, granted her citizenship at time when other countries were not willing to do so. Nyerere recognized the important work she and her husband had done to advance scholarship on black history, art, socialism, Pan Africanism, and the anti-imperialist struggle. She had earned the honor of acquiring Tanzanian citizenship through her work and activism.
Shirley Graham Du Bois travelled several times to the US and other countries in the course of 1970. She died of breast cancer in China in 1977; she was a Tanzanian citizen when she died. Her work and contributions have not received the recognition they deserve. Shirley Graham Du Bois is, nevertheless, one of the greatest minds the US has produced.
© Azaria Mbughuni