Olivia Ward Bush-Bank was born in Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York. She was the third daughter of Eliza Draper and Abraham Ward. Her parents were of African-American and Montaukett descent. When she was still very young, only nine months old, her mother died and her father moved the family to Providence, Rhode Island. She was eventually sent to live with her aunt and enrolled at Providence High School. It was here that she wrote her first poems. They dealt mostly with her mixed heritage and questions about her identity. Bush-Bank also spent time studying drama and nursing.
In 1889, after graduating from high school, she married Frank Bush. Together the couple had two children, but divorced six years later. During this time period she worked throughout Providence and Boston, taking on whatever job could help her support her family. She was also writing her first book of poetry, titled, Original Poems. It was published in 1899. Her work was well received and she soon found more pleasant work as an assistant theatre director at the Robert Gould Shaw Settlement House in Boston. She would remain here until 1914.
Her second volume, Driftwood, was released this same year. It became her most popular work. In 1916, Bush-Bank married again, this time to Anthony Banks, a railroad porter. Two years later the couple moved to Chicago where she wrote her first play, Indian Trails: or Trail of the Montauk. She also worked as a contributor to Colored America, and advocated for the “New Negro Movement.”
In her later years, she created and ran the Bush-Bank School of Expression. An organization in which black artists could fully express and nurture their artistic impulses. Eventually, she returned to live in New York and became close friends with other activists and artists such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson. She also worked in Harlem in the Works Progress Administration as a drama coach as well as writing for the Westchester Record-Courier.
Although she was near the end of her life she continued to write short stories and plays. Many of these works were never published due to their focus on issues in interracial culture. Olivia Ward Bush Banks died on April 8, 1944.