American writer Olivia Ward Bush-Banks (1869–1944) was a poet and playwright best known for celebrating both her African-American and Montauk heritages in her works. She founded the Bush-Banks School of Expression in Chicago to foster emerging African-American talents. Some of her plays supported an interracial culture controversial for her day, and were not produced during her lifetime.
Olivia Ward Bush Banks had two distinct ethnic identities and strongly identified with both of them. Born at the height of Reconstruction on February 27, 1869, in the Long Island village of Sag Harbor, New York, Olivia Ward was the youngest daughter of Abraham Ward and Eliza Draper. Sag Harbor, located in the eastern portion of Long Island known as the Hamptons, was historically commercially active in fishing, and Abraham probably worked as a fisherman. Both of Ward's parents were of mixed ethnicity, partially African American and partially Montauk Indian. (The Montauk were a tribe of Native Americans who had traditionally lived in the portion of Long Island covering the present-day Hamptons.) These two identities influenced Bush-Banks throughout her life; writing in the introduction to The Collected Works of Olivia Ward Bush-Banks , Bernice F. Guilliaume noted that "in sum, [Bush-Banks] represented a living anachronism of assimilation and transculturalism on North America's eastern seaboard."
Bush-Banks's mother died when the child was nine months old, and her father relocated with Bush-Banks and her two elder sisters to Providence, Rhode Island. Her father remarried in 1871, leaving Bush-Banks in the care of her maternal aunt, Maria Draper. Draper greatly influenced Bush-Banks as a child, who attributed her aunt's determination and strength to her Native American heritage and upbringing. Bush-Banks completed her education at Providence High School, where she received training in nursing and developed an interest in drama and literature. Her high school drama instructor, a woman known only as Miss Dodge, recognized Bush-Banks's youthful talent with dramatic interpretation and gave the young girl private drama lessons. Dodge's style was called Behavior Drama; the exact method and style of this technique remains unclear, but seems to have relied on emotional delivery and interpretation of texts. Bush-Banks herself later taught drama using this technique.
A few years after graduating from high school, Bush-Banks married Frank Bush. The couple had two daughters, Rosa Olivia (Rosamund) and Marie. The marriage was not a happy one—Bush-Banks once referred to it as "most extremely unfortunate"—and the two were divorced by 1895. Bush-Banks solely supported herself and her two young children and, after 1890, her now-aged aunt Maria Draper.
After her divorce, Bush-Banks moved frequently back and forth between Providence and nearby Boston in order to find work to support her family. One method she used to generate income was poetry writing. In 1899 she published her first volume, Original Poems . The collection contained ten poems, which American National Biography described as "including elegies extolling African-American courage and virtue ('Crispus Attucks,' 'The Hero of San Juan Hill'), imaginative odes to faith and perseverance ('My Dream of the New Year'), and verses celebrating the ecstasies of religion ('Treasured Moments,' 'The Walk to Emmaus')." Preeminent African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar praised the volume, and the prominent African-American publication Voice of the Negro reprinted several poems from the volume.
Some record of Bush-Banks's time in Boston exists. Sometime around 1900, she because the assistant drama director the Robert Gould Shaw Community House, a Boston settlement house. (Settlement houses, which had become popular in the United States toward the end of the 1800s, were community organizations dedicated to alleviating urban poverty and homelessness through education and self-improvement.) She seems to have worked there as late as 1914. During that era Bush-Banks continued to write and publish works, contributing to Colored American Magazine between 1900 and 1904. Bush-Banks was literary editor of Boston's Citizen magazine for a time, and participated in the Northeastern Federation of Women's Clubs.
In 1914 Bush-Banks's second poetry collection, Driftwood , was published. This work includes 25 poems and two prose pieces, including elegies to figures notable for their importance to the African American community such as Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Bush-Banks's only published play, Memories of Calvary: An Easter Sketch , was published around 1917 and was the last of her works to be strongly influenced by religion.
Sometimes after 1916 Bush-Banks married Anthony Banks, a porter on the popular Pullman train cars. This marriage took her to Chicago. There she founded the Bush-Banks School of Expression in order to support emerging African-American talents in literature, drama, music, dance, and visual arts. She also taught drama in the Chicago public school system, having become deeply drawn to the medium while teaching at the Robert Shaw Community House in Boston.
While living in Chicago, Bush-Banks wrote a play titled Indian Trails: or Trail of the Montauk . This play today survives only in fragments, but seems to have reflected Bush-Banks's identification with her Native American lineage. The work drew upon her familiarity with Montauk language and culture. In 1910 the Montauk tribe had been officially declared extinct following a New York State Supreme Court case, Wyandank Pharaoh v. Jane Benson et al. , by all accounts much to the surprise and dismay of the 75 members of the tribe standing in the courtroom at the time of the announcement. Bush-Banks's play was presumably written in reaction to this event, and is estimated to date from sometime around 1920. The work reflected the decreasing cultural unity among tribal members, but at the same time promoted future unity when, at its end, later European settlers agreed to return the lands to the native people.
Bush-Banks and her daughter Rosa Olivia (Rosamund) had at some time become estranged, probably due to differences in personality and to Bush-Banks's apparent disapproval of her daughter's husband. In 1929, and before the two could reconcile, Rosa Olivia passed away.
Bush-Banks's other daughter, Marie Bush Horton, remained close to her mother. Beginning in 1928 and continuing through the early 1940s, Bush-Banks split her time between Chicago and New York City, where Horton lived. From the 1920s on, Bush-Banks identified more closely with the African-American rather than Native American part of her heritage. Although it remains unclear how much time Bush-Banks spent in New York City and how much in Chicago, it is known that she was active in the intellectual and artistic scene that developed as part of the Harlem Renaissance. The first mainstream flowering of African-American culture, the Harlem Renaissance marked the growth of unique and prominent African-American voices, including Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. DuBois. The era is also remembered for its fostering of jazz talents and band leaders in the packed nightclubs of New York City's Harlem neighborhood, long an African-American stronghold.
Bush-Banks's activities in the Great Depression era of the 1930s reflect her association with the Harlem Renaissance. She was part of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Theatre Project in 1936. The Works Progress Administration sought to create jobs for Americans and often supported arts endeavors. She also worked under the Works Progress Administration as a drama instructor at the Abyssinia Community Center in Harlem between 1936 and 1939, during which time she taught using Miss Dodge's Behavior Drama technique. In 1936 Bush-Banks completed an adult teacher education program and at last became a certified teacher. Also in the 1930s, she served as the "Cultural Art" columnist for the New Rochelle Westchester Record-Courier .
As the 1930s progressed, Bush-Banks became increasingly disillusioned with the Harlem Renaissance. This is reflected in her works as early as about 1929 in the brief piece "Greenwich Village Highlights," and continued with 1932's "New Year Musings," 1933's "Black Communism," and finally 1935's one-act play "A Shantytown Scandal." All of these works, like most of Bush-Banks's later works, were unpublished. The work that was considered her greatest contribution to the Harlem Renaissance movement is a story cycle known as "Aunt Viney's Sketches." These stories may have been written as a reaction to Paul Laurence Dunbar's short story "Viney's Free Papers." Bush-Banks's Aunt Viney is a fully mature African-American woman who has developed a strong sense of folk wisdom during her years, and the stories themselves comment on both the Great Depression and the world of Harlem. The stories use vernacular language and identify themselves intensely with African-American culture. Although Bush-Banks began an application for a copyright with the Library of Congress for the stories in 1937, the application was never fully completed and the stories were not published.
While in New York City, Bush-Banks seems to have been influenced by her daughter Marie Bush Horton and granddaughter Helen on a personal, rather than professional, level. Bush-Banks's religious affiliation shifted during her lifetime. Some speculate her father had been a Mormon and polygamist, with two concurrent wives between 1865 and 1869. Notable Black American Women commented that "whatever religious upbringing she received as a child does not seem to have satisfied her when she became an adult." Bush-Banks was interested in the Baha'i faith, a religion that sees all major world religions as differing expressions of one unified God. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Bush-Banks was a member of New York City's Community Church, run by Minister John Haynes Holmes. Bush Horton and her daughter had become Seventh Day Adventists, and Bush-Banks ultimately converted to this religion.
Bush-Banks died in New York City on April 8, 1944, at the age of 75. Her published works total two books of poetry; one play; two poems published in magazines, "A Picture" (1900) and "On the Long Island Indian" (1916); and three essays also published in magazines, "Undercurrents of Social Life" (1900), "Echoes from the Cabin Song" (1932), and "Essay on John Greene" (1932). Her unpublished works are more numerous and reflect an evolving cultural voice in the first part of the twentieth century. Bush-Banks expressed both the Native American part of her heritage in the early portion of her work, particularly the play Indian Trails: or Trail of the Montauk , and the African-American portion of herself in her more mature works. Although Bush-Banks was not as well known as many of her Harlem Renaissance contemporaries, her writings on the era have contributed to our contemporary understanding of the time, and an examination of her overall creative works hav enriched many surveys of early twentieth-century American poetry, drama, and thought.
Guillaume, Bernice F., The Collected Works of Olivia Ward Bush-Banks , Oxford University Press, 1991.
"African American Women Writers Biographies," http://www.digital.nypl.org/schomburg/writers_aa19/bio2.html" (January 7, 2007).
"Bush-Banks, Olivia Ward," American National Biography Online , http://www.anb.org.ezproxy.libraries.wright.edu (January 7, 2007).
"Olivia Ward Bush-Banks," Notable Black American Women , reproduced in Biography Resource Center , http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (January 7, 2007).