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Olivia Ward Bush-Banks was born in Sag Harbor, New York, on February 27, 1869, to parents of African American and Montauk descent. After her mother died when she was nine months old, Bush-Banks was sent to live with her aunt in Providence, Rhode Island. It was while she was enrolled at Providence High School that Bush-Banks began writing poems, many of which reflected on her heritage and biracial identity.
After high school, Bush-Banks got married and had two daughters. A few years later, she divorced and briefly lived with her aunt in Providence again before moving her family to Boston, where she served as the assistant dramatic director at the Robert Gould Shaw Community House.
In 1899, Bush-Banks published the ten-poem collection Original Poems (Louis A. Basinet Press), followed by Driftwood (Atlantic Printing Co., 1914). Paul Laurence Dunbar praised her first collection, saying it “should be an inspiration to the women of our race.” By 1900, Bush-Banks had contributed to a number of publications, including Boston Transcript, Voice of the Negro, and Colored American Magazine, and was serving as the historian for the Montauk nation, a position she held until she remarried in the early 1920s.
After remarrying, Bush-Banks moved to Chicago, where she advocated for the New Negro Movement and established a private drama school, the Bush-Banks School of Expression.
In the 1930s, Bush-Banks moved to New York City, where she served as a drama coach in Harlem under a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program and wrote for the Westchester Record-Courier.
Bush-Banks died in New York City on April 8, 1944.