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#tbt girl crush: the 20th-century activist who broke down barriers

Apr. 14, 2017
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When we started posting #tbt girl crushes in honor of Women’s History Month, we expected that the end of March would also mark the end of the series. But in our research we realized that there are way too many badass historical girl crushes to contain to a single month of Thursdays, and so we are continuing this column on a biweekly basis! This #throwbackthursday, we’re celebrating an incredible author, philosopher, and social activist: Grace Lee Boggs.

Boggs (originally named Yu Ping) was born June 27th, 1915, in Providence, Rhode Island, to two Chinese immigrants. Boggs’ mother was illiterate, the result of a childhood spent in a village where girls were forbidden from learning how to read or write. Yet Boggs was consistently drawn to knowledge and education, and at age 16 she was accepted into college. She graduated from Barnard College in 1935 and continued on to obtain her Ph.D. in philosophy from Bryn Mawr. As a graduate student, Boggs pored over the work of Karl Marx, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Karl Polanyi--even translating some of Marx’s essays from German to English.

Struggling to find work after graduating, Boggs was faced with the overwhelming reality that people did not want to hire her based on her ethnicity. After deciding to move to the Midwest, Boggs found a job with the University of Chicago’s philosophy library, where she was paid only $10 per week on which to survive. Unable to afford a home, she lived for free in a rat-filled basement.

While taking a walk through her neighborhood one day, she came across a group of protesters, who were protesting against poor living conditions--a cause which Boggs found fully relatable. By Boggs’ own account, this was the moment she first became connected to the Black community. This connection would shape the rest of her life.

In the 1940s, Boggs moved to Detroit to become an editor for the newsletter Correspondence. It was here where she met the love of her life: James Boggs, a Black auto worker, writer, and activist. The perfect pair married in 1953 and took the city by storm. Together they tackled issues across the sociopolitical spectrum: civil rights, labor rights, Black Power, feminism, Asian American rights, and the environment. Boggs spent so much of her life advocating for the Black Power movement that people began to assume that she was partially black. In some FBI files, she was referred to as “Afro Chinese”.

Boggs went on to write several books, including Revolution And Evolution In The Twentieth Century, an autobiography called Living For Change, and The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism For The Twenty-First Century. More importantly, though, she brought hope and progression to every community she entered. Whether planting gardens on vacant lots, marching against racism, lecturing about equality, founding organizations, or standing up for one of her many political movements, Boggs was unstoppable.

In 1993 James Boggs died. Determined to reinvent herself and learn how to live a life without her partner, Boggs dove even deeper into being an advocate for the communities within Detroit. In 2005, she was given a weekly column about change in the Michigan Citizen, which she would continue to write until she was 98 years old. But even then, she wasn’t quite finished: in 2013, at the age of 98, she started the James and Grace Lee Boggs School--a charter school which combines the social issues of Detroit with basic curriculum, thereby teaching young people how to get involved and create a better future.  

In 2015, at the age of 100, Boggs passed away. Although she is gone, her legacy will continue to live on through those who take a stand for equality--and those who remain committed to her vision of freedom and evolving change.

“To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/ spiritual leap and become more 'human' human beings. In order to change/ transform the world, they must change/ transform themselves.” - Grace Lee Boggs