Colleen J. McElroy

1935 –

Colleen J. McElroy was born in St. Louis on October 30, 1935. She was the daughter of Ruth Celeste and Purcia Purcell Rawls. Her parents divorced in 1938, and her mother remarried a U.S. Army sergeant named Jesse Dalton Johnson. McElroy took her stepfather’s surname. McElroy moved frequently during her childhood due to her stepfather’s assignments. She lived in St. Louis, Wyoming, Munich, and Kansas City by age twenty-one. McElroy briefly attended college in Munich but graduated from Kansas State University with a bachelor of science in 1958. She then studied in the University of Pittsburgh’s speech and language program, then transferred to Kansas State University where she earned a master of science in neurological and language learning patterns. McElroy then graduated from the University of Washington with a PhD in ethnolinguistic patterns of dialect differences and oral traditions.

McElroy began her writing career in the early 1970s. She was particularly influenced by African American poets, including Langston Hughes, Anne Spencer, Robert Hayden, Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks. McElroy released her first chapbook, The Mules Done Long Since Gone (Harrison-Madrona Center), in 1972. McElroy has since published nine poetry collections, including Blood Memory (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016); Sleeping with the Moon (University of Illinois Press, 2007); What Madness Brought Me Here: New and Selected Poems, 1968–1988 (Wesleyan University Press, 1990); and Queen of the Ebony Islands (Wesleyan University Press, 1984).

McElroy has also published short stories in several anthologies, including those edited by Gloria Naylor and Terry McMillan. She released two short story collections, Driving Under the Cardboard Pines and Other Stories (Creative Arts Book Company, 1991) and Jesus and Fat Tuesday: And Other Short Stories (Creative Arts Book Company, 1987), as well as two travel memoirs.

McElroy has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller and Fulbright foundations. She has won the 1976 Pushcart Prize, the 1985 American Book Award, and the 2008 PEN Oakland National Literary Award. 

McElroy was the director of speech and hearing services at Western Washington University before joining the faculty of the English department at the University of Washington, where, in 1983, she became the first Black woman at the university to be promoted to full professor. From 1995 to 2006, McElroy served as the editor of The Seattle Review. She was professor emerita at the University of Washington and lived in Seattle until her death on December 12, 2023.