The Badass Wife of W.E.B. Du Bois
Shirley Graham Du Bois was a political activist and artist at the center of Black radicalism. Time to know her name.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she should be included in Women’s History Month.
Meet the badass women that history forgot — but we didn’t. Check out the rest of this OZY series here.
The Rev. David Graham feared that a mob was coming to burn down his church. The community meeting he had organized to protest the killing of a young Black boy by a policeman had stirred up trouble. So Graham stood before his congregation with a loaded gun and a Bible, told the women and children to get out of harm’s way, and prepared, alongside 21 armed men, to fight.
In the end, nothing came of it, but the reverend’s young daughter, Shirley, about age 6, was marked forever by the scene and others like it in the American South at the turn of the last century. As a result, she devoted her life to fighting racism and oppression as a writer and an activist. Unlike the contributions of her second husband, famed civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, Graham Du Bois’ have largely been forgotten, but Komozi Woodard, a historian at Sarah Lawrence College, insists they were very much a “power couple” and that Graham Du Bois was Du Bois’ equal in many ways.
Du Bois couldn’t have had that last important phase of his life without the partnership he had with Shirley [Graham Du Bois].
Komozi Woodard, Sarah Lawrence College
Born in Indiana in 1896, Graham achieved a level of accomplishment rare for women of the era, long before she married Du Bois, author of The Souls of Black Folk and father of Pan-Africanism. In 1932, she penned Tom-Tom, the first all-Black opera performed professionally in the U.S., which was seen by an estimated 25,000 people. She also authored biographical texts about Black historical figures like the inventor George Washington Carver and the poet Phillis Wheatley — all while raising two sons as a divorced single mother. In the 1940s, as the NAACP’s membership increased tenfold, the 5-foot-2 powerhouse worked tirelessly as an assistant field director in New York City.
Du Bois was in his early 80s when he and Graham married in 1951, and she had a substantial influence on his later career. “Du Bois couldn’t have had that last important phase of his life without the partnership he had with Shirley,” Woodard says. Before their marriage, Du Bois was in a “sparring match” with communists, says Gerald Horne, a historian at the University of Houston, but that quickly changed as he came to see his wife’s logic. While older activists fought solely against racial discrimination, “young lions like Shirley said no, economics is also affecting us” and supported the Communist Party, Woodard adds.
When Du Bois was arraigned as a suspected communist during the Red Scare, Graham Du Bois rallied to her husband’s defense by giving speeches nationwide. She didn’t wave a gun or a Bible, but she held sway over audiences, and Du Bois was eventually cleared. In 1961, the couple left the U.S. for Ghana because of anti-communist and anti-Black extremism, a move, Woodard says, that was “engineered” by Graham Du Bois, who was forced to leave behind her post as founding editor of the Black magazine Freedomways.
W.E.B. Du Bois died in 1963, and the much younger Graham Du Bois continued supporting radical causes. She was the founding director of Ghana Television, met with government officials in China and introduced Malcolm X to Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah. She embraced Malcolm X like a “son” and was “instrumental” in his success, Woodard says, by providing him with support and contacts. She may have been a controversial figure in her time, but it’s puzzling why Graham Du Bois never earned a bigger entry in history books. Perhaps because, for one, she could be too “traditional,” Horne says, referring to her role as a “mother” to Black activists like Malcolm X and to her use of language that often played into gender stereotypes. Also, W.E.B. overshadowed his wife, both in reputation and with privilege. “The economic security that she got from marrying Du Bois helped stabilize her life,” Woodard notes, and perhaps also diminished her legacy.
When Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, Graham Du Bois took to Ghanaian airwaves to deliver a speech, titled “The Beginning, Not the End,” to help shape his legacy. She deemed Malcolm X “the most promising and effective leader of American Negroes in this century,” a stance that was not unanimously shared at the time.
Graham Du Bois died in China in 1977, an event deemed undeserving of a New York Times obituary, in contrast to her late husband, and no one took to the airwaves to hail her accomplishments. After all, most of the historical names revered as seminal Black activists and artists are male. But, as we know, that’s only half the story.