Date of Award


Document type


Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

Afro-American Studies

First Advisor

Esther M. Terry

Second Advisor

John H. Bracey, Jr.

Third Advisor

James Smethurst

Subject Categories

African American Studies | Women's Studies


This dissertation traces the early origins of Shirley Graham Du Bois, a well known Negro achiever in the 1930s and 1940s, from the decades preceding her birth in 1896 up through the mid-twentieth century when she has reached mid life and achieved a number of successes. It attempts to reclaim from obscurity the significant cultural production that Shirley Graham contributed to American society. Her artistry and activism were manifested in many ways. As a very young woman she conducted, throughout the northern and eastern parts of the U. S., musical concerts extolling the beauty and significance of spirituals. While attending school at Oberlin College, she wrote a musical opera that was regarded during its time as the world's first race opera. In 1936 she assumed the role of Director for the Chicago Black Unit of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP). After the FTP phased out, she attended Yale School of Drama to learn the craft of playwriting, and proceeded to write several plays that were staged and viewed by interracial audiences. As the country prepared for WWII, she was selected to head USO activities in Fort Huachuca, Arizona where the largest aggregation of Negro soldiers were stationed before being sent off to battle. She subsequently became a field secretary for the NAACP during this period of tumultuous change in the nation and the world. The early 1940s would see Graham reach the pinnacle of success during this phase of her life by writing biographies for a national children's audience. This success was short lived due to the political climate of red-baiting that became fashionable during the political reign of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Graham's progressive politics, communist affiliation and marriage to W. E. B. Du Bois placed her on the wrong side of the establishment. Each chapter develops the varying forms her activism took shape in each given situation. Following the example of fore-parents who were politically and socially engaged during their lifetimes, Graham follows suit. Her efforts reveal a woman who educated, inspired and empowered others while demonstrating the different ways one could use her abilities to confront racism.