Solid in her own right, meet the wife of W.E.B Du Bois, the legendary author and activist the world forgot

Michael Eli Dokosi December 21, 2019
Shirley Graham Du Bois via

Her famous husband William Edward Burghardt Du Bois attracted more attention.

The American sociologist, historian, civil rights activist, author, writer and editor proved his mettle in calling out injustices against people of color in the U.S. and demanding action to better the lot of Negros.

Equally formidable was Shirley Graham who will become Shirley Graham Du Bois upon her marriage to the Pan-Africanist when he had turned the ripe age of 84. It was her second marriage aged 54.

In a cruel way, Graham’s innocent view of the world was altered early on when there was a threat of burning his father’s church by a mob who took issue with the religious man denouncing the murder of a young black boy by a policeman.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 220px-Portrait_of_Shirley_Graham.jpg
Shirley Graham Du Bois via

That incident at age six will lead Graham to devote her life to fighting racism and oppression as a writer and an activist, prompting Komozi Woodard, a historian at Sarah Lawrence College to say “Du Bois couldn’t have had that last important phase of his life without the partnership he had with Shirley.”

“Shirley Graham Du Bois was the 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,” writes Ozy.

W. E. B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois on board the S. S. Liberte, August 1958, August 1958
W. E. B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois on board the S. S. Liberte, August 1958, August 1958, Photo: Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries

Du Bois and Graham married in 1951, and proved to be the reason for some of her husband’s altered views.

Du Bois and communist Gerald Horne, a historian at the University of Houston, did not see eye to eye but Graham while supporting the fight against racial discrimination also held that there was the need to fight for economic liberation too which the communists campaigned for. Du Bois eventually supported the Communist Party.

“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 on his 95th birthday with Shirley Graham Du Bois, Kwame Nkrumah and Madame Nkrumah, February 23, 1963
W. E. B. Du Bois at home on the evening of his 95th birthday; Shirley Graham Du Bois looking at a gift from President Kwame Nkrumah who is watching along with his wife, Fathia Rizk Nkrumah via

With Du Bois’ passing in 1963, Graham, relatively still young, channeled her energies to projects. She became a founding director of Ghana Television, met with government officials in China and introduced Malcolm X to Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah.

On Malcolm X’s assassination in 1965, it was Graham who delivered a speech titled “The Beginning, Not the End,” on Ghanaian airwaves to help shape his legacy.

Of Malcolm X, she embraced him like a “son” and was “instrumental” in his success.

Dr Kwame Nkrumah with Shirley Graham DuBois in Guinea after his overthrow, 1967. Stokely Carmichael, Ghana Art, French West Africa, African Braids Hairstyles Pictures, Black Hairstyles, Pan Africanism, African Culture, African American History, Black History Facts
Stokely Carmichael of SNCC, Kwame Nkrumah of the CPP and Shirley Graham DuBois of the CP in Guinea. Nkrumah was living in Guinea in the aftermath of a CIA-backed military and police coup in Ghana on Feb. a photo by Pan-African.

Graham was born in Indiana in 1896 and died in China in 1977 aged 81. She achieved a level of accomplishment rare for women of the era, long before she married Du Bois who died aged 95.

It’s argued that W.E.B. Du Bois overshadowed his wife, both in reputation and with privilege because of their marriage which provided economic security for her but perhaps also diminished her legacy.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: December 21, 2019


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