Shirley Graham Du Bois’s Biographical Writings

*This post is part of our online roundtable on Shirley Graham Du Bois to recognize the anniversary of her passing in March 1977. The contributions in this forum center her intellectual and cultural production as an author, playwright, activist, Pan-Africanist, and Black radical. 

Shirley Graham Du Bois July 18, 1946 (Credit: Carl Van Vechten, W. E. B. Du Bois Papers/MS 312, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries).

Incarcerated at Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center in Pleasanton, California in the late 1960s for having co-led the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley I was desperate for things to read. Prison authorities confiscated almost all of the books sent to me. In the prison’s library, combing the shelves for something other than true romance and true crime I saw the name Shirley Graham. My heart leapt for joy. I pulled the book from the shelf. There was her biography of Frederick Douglass, There Was Once a Slave. I marveled that it was in this library; then I saw the acquisition. It was from the United States Navy! Prior to its use as the Alameda County Jail Santa Rita had been a naval base in the 1940s. In fact, it had been used as one of the staging areas for the internment of Japanese Americans, and later a naval installation. Published in 1947 Graham’s work had won the Julian Messner Award for “the best book combatting intolerance in America.” I read it over and over again.

Graham Du Bois had an astonishingly prolific career as novelist, playwright, theatrical producer, opera composer, and biographer. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (1945-47); her co-awardee was the great African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks. They were among the first African Americans to be so honored. She very nearly completed a Ph.D. in English at NYU in the late 1940s. She was also a radical political activist with close ties to the U.S. Communist Party. For example, she co-founded a short-lived group of Black women called Sojourners for Freedom whose statements and actions beckoned to the mass movement that was yet a few years in coming. She was co-founding editor of the journal Freedomways that was to become an indispensable political and theoretical guide to the 1960s civil rights movement. Graham Du Bois had a well-established career by the time of her marriage to W.E.B. Du Bois in 1951. He was 83 and she was 54. She had been previously married to Shadrach McCann from Seattle, Washington and they had two sons, Robert and David. McCann either died or they were divorced (Graham insisted she was widowed, but biographers sometimes claim there was a divorce). As Graham pursued her early career in music and theater, her mother, Etta Bell, who was Cheyenne, raised Robert and David. Her father, Reverend David A. Graham, was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mrs. Graham was also very active in the church. They lived in Indiana. Robert died prematurely in 1944. Graham Du Bois told me it was from pneumonia that was inadequately treated at a New York hospital. She believed that this was due to racism. Robert was only 21. It was a devastating loss.

Following Robert’s death, Graham Du Bois produced a frenetic outpouring of writings. She poured her grief into writing, a combination of atonement for Robert’s death and a memorial to him. Graham Du Bois was an extraordinary biographer. In addition to her work on Douglass, framed as a historical novel, between 1944 and 1955 she published six biographies of African Americans designed for young adults. Each was meticulously researched, and written in an engaging, fluent, and imaginative style. Among these we find, for example, Paul Robeson: Citizen of the World in 1946. The Du Boises and Essie and Paul Robeson were close personal friends and the biography reflects both the high esteem in which Graham Du Bois held the world-renowned singer and actor, and also her warm and loving feelings towards him. There was a translation of this work published in China in 1951; a third Chinese edition included a new appendix that documented Robeson’s opposition to the Korean War.

Other biographies published in this same period include Your Most Humble Servant: Benjamin Banneker (1949). Banneker, the son of slaves and largely self-educated, was a remarkable inventor, author, scientist, and anti-slavery advocate. Impressed by his abilities, Thomas Jefferson recommended Banneker to be a part of a surveying team to lay out what was to become the new Federal Capital of the young Republic: Washington, D.C. Appointed to the three-man team by president George Washington, Benjamin Banneker wound up saving the project when the lead architect quit in a fury – taking all the plans with him! Graham Du Bois also published critically acclaimed biographies of Pocahontas, Jean Baptiste Pointe Du Sable, Booker T. Washington, and Phillis Wheatley.

Likewise, in continuing a frenetic pace to perhaps distract from her grief, Graham Du Bois enrolled in a Ph.D. program in English at NYU. She easily passed her language exams – she knew French, Spanish and German – and her qualifying exams. She also completed her dissertation. However, she was nine units short in course work, and left NYU in 1947 without a degree.

In the Graham Du Bois’s archive at the Schlesinger Library I found an unpublished biographical novel based on the life of Anne Royall. Titled The Verdict, this 459-page manuscript was to have been submitted as her dissertation. It is a fascinating work, written in Graham Du Bois’s imaginative and sympathetic style and as was her practice, very carefully researched. Anne Royall (1769-1854), scarcely remembered today, was the first woman journalist in the United States; she published her own newspaper near the end of her life that she ultimately called The Huntress. In addition she published ten volumes of travel books, and a novel. She was a muckraker, excoriating everyone from government officials, to the Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. for corruption and fraud. A well-known figure she was arrested in 1829 for being a “Common Scold,” a crime reserved only for women construed to be a public nuisance because of their speech. She was convicted and sentenced to the traditional punishment of ducking for which the Marines at the Navy Yard built a ducking chair. She was to have been ducked repeatedly in the Potomac, no joke for a woman who had just turned 60. On appeal of the sentence, it was revoked, and the judge fined her $10 instead, which two sympathetic male journalists paid. Anne Royall opposed slavery, opposed the Trail of Tears, Andrew Jackson’s policy of Indian Removal in which the Cherokee peoples were marched from their homeland in Southeast Georgia and environs to Oklahoma. Thousands died along the way. In general Anne Royall was a most radical woman for her day. Graham Du Bois’s novel begins with Royall’s early life and the young wife of Major William Royall, veteran of the American Revolution who was considerably older than she was. The biography then details an example of Anne Royall’s muckraking journalism, and ends with “the verdict” in her trial as a Common Scold. Among her papers I found no explanation for Graham Du Bois’s choice in focusing on Anne Royall; I can speculate that her independent spirit, anti-slavery sympathies, her abhorrence of corruption, and her defense of Native Americans may well have inspired this line of research.

My focus here on Graham Du Bois’s life in the 1940s and her biographical writings is only a fraction of her innovation and talent. Her biographical memoir of Dr. Du Bois, His Day is Marching On published in 1971, eight years after her husband’s death, is particularly affecting and especially so for me in her description of the last few hours of his life. Many activists, ambassadors, and the President of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah came to pay homage to the Doctor as he lay in his last hours. She described Dr. Du Bois near the end as he took Nkrumah’s had “and held it tight between his. ‘I want to thank you,’ he said earnestly, ‘for all you have done to make the ending of my life bountiful and beautiful.’” Nkrumah left with tears streaming down his face. Du Bois wanted nothing to eat; he asked Shirley to sit with him, as he fell asleep. “The shadows deepened. . . I switched off the light. My dear one never awoke.”

A state visit to China in the late 1950s had been of great significance to both Graham Du Bois and W.E.B. Du Bois and included meetings with Mao, and Zhou Enlai. They marveled at the construction of socialism, the end of famine, and the universal health care, in the early days of revolutionary China. It was not surprising then that Graham Du Bois was invited to return to China for treatment of breast cancer that was slowly claiming her life. Treatment was not successful. She died in Beijing, in March 1977. She had returned to China at the government’s invitation. Later her son David Graham brought her ashes to Ghana. They are interred next to those of Dr. Du Bois, adjacent to their former home, which is today a tiny, modest museum at the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Centre for Pan-African Culture.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Bettina Aptheker

Bettina Aptheker is Distinguished Professor Emerita in the Department of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds the Peggy and Jack Baskin Foundation Presidential Chair for Feminist Studies for 2017–20. She has published seven books, including a memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel (2006), and The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis (2nd ed., 1999). Her father, Herbert Aptheker, was the literary executor of the W. E. B. Du Bois papers.

Comments on “Shirley Graham Du Bois’s Biographical Writings

  • Thanks for honoring the memory of Graham DuBois…truly a giant in her own space.

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