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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.