"We are a race of artists. What are we doing about it?"
– Shirley Graham Du Bois, "Towards an American Theatre," Arts Quarterly, Oct–Dec 1937
Although some may associate Shirley Graham Du Bois with her husband, the noted civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois, her legacy extends beyond her famous husband's impact on American history. Born on November 11, 1896 in Indianapolis, Indiana, Shirley Graham learned about civil rights activism early on from her father, but her career did not initially focus on activism. After a brief marriage to Shadrack T. McCann, who died a few years into their marriage, Graham studied music at the Howard University School of Music and Oberlin College. During this time, she produced an opera and wrote plays, which led to her to become the director of the African American division of the Chicago Unit of the Federal Theatre Project in 1936. Graham did not forget her early civil rights experiences, though, and joined the New York branch of the NAACP in the 1940s where she connected with W. E. B. Du Bois. The couple married in 1951 after the death of his first wife. Together, they joined the Communist Party and later moved to Ghana in the early 1960s. After her husband’s death in 1963, Graham DuBois traveled around the world. Although she was temporarily banned from the United States for a time due to her far-left beliefs, Graham Du Bois was eventually allowed back into the US. She donated her husband’s papers to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in exchange for $150,000 and served as a visiting lecturer at UMass for a year. The UMass library and Department of Afro-American Studies are both named for W. E. B. Du Bois. Graham Du Bois did not stay in Massachusetts long; she moved to China in 1976 and died of cancer a year later in 1977.
Shirley Graham Du Bois' writing career spanned from 1932 to 1975 and included six plays and fourteen books. She won several prestigious awards and fellowships including the Rosenwald Fellowship in 1939, Julius Messner Award in 1946, Aisfiled-Wolf Award in 1949, Guggenheim Fellowship, and National Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1950. Beginning in 1944, Graham Du Bois began to write biographies of prominent African and Native Americans for Young adults, including subjects like George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, Phyllis Wheatley, Pocahontas, and Booker T. Washington. She hoped that her sympathetic portraits of these figures would uplift and inspire American youth.
While teaching at Amherst in the 1970s, Graham Du Bois lived at The Lord Jeffery Inn. The inn, near the grounds of the Amherst Commons, has been in operation since 1926 and is owned and operated by an affiliate of Amherst College.
Directions to Next Stop
Walk North on Boltwood Avenue for 0.08 miles. Turn right onto Main Street and walk for 0.04 miles. Turn left onto Boltwood Walk and walk for 0.2 miles. Turn right onto Kellogg Avenue and walk for 0.1 miles to 55 Kellogg Avenue.