Phenomenal Woman: Grace Lee Boggs

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Grace Lee Boggs was a prominent writer and activist who worked closely with Black Marxist and Black power leaders like Malcolm X and her husband James Boggs during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

Born in 1915 in Providence, R.I. the child of Chinese immigrants, Boggs grew up in New York City, where her father owned a Chinese restaurant on Broadway. At the age of 16, she won a scholarship to Barnard College for undergraduate studies, and went on to earn a doctorate from Bryn Mawr College in 1940.  She became active in tenants’ rights after taking a low-wage job at the University of Chicago Philosophy Library.

In the 1950s, she came to Detroit to write for socialist newspaper The Correspondence. 

An activist, civil-rights pioneer, public intellectual and prolific writer, Boggs fought for social change in a wide range of movements intertwined with Detroit’s history. She was once a Marxist active in labor movements and worked with Malcolm X but in recent years shifted her beliefs to emphasizing the importance of internal changes.

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Grace Lee Boggs and her husband, fellow activist and author James Boggs

In 1992, she and her husband James Boggs founded Detroit Summer, a non-profit aimed at giving youth not just a safe place to spend their free time off the streets, but also a sense of pride and ownership in their communities. Together, the group plants community gardens, paints murals, and is also affiliated with a no- or low-cost bicycle shop that provides Detroit Summer kids transportation to and from the program. Detroit Summer led to the formation of several more local youth groups, including Back Alley Bikes, a youth bicycle collective, Detroit Future, and the Detroit Asian Youth Project.

Following James’ death in 1993, Grace founded the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership in 1995. In 2013, she started a diverse charter school—the James and Grace Lee Boggs School—which is now run by Principal Julia Putnam, a former participant and beneficiary of the Detroit Summer program.

Grace Lee Boggs passed away in 2015, at the age of 100.

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According to Professor Rachael Baker, “What is arguably [Grace Lee Boggs’] most lasting contribution to critical engagement with racialization and property relations is the work Grace carried out with her husband Jimmy in the Detroit Summer program; an initiative that gave Grace’s pedagogy life and am urban scale of influence that continues to live on in the urban fabric of civic activism in Detroit today.”

Through her fierce intellect and boldness in questioning established legislation and systems, Boggs inspired generations to strive for the betterment of marginalised communities. Her enduring impact can be seen in the ongoing fight for the rights and quality of life of Black, Asian and other communities of color in her own city and others today.

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