Grace Lee Boggs, Asian-American Activist, Dies At 100

Grace Lee Boggs, an activist who spent her life actively supporting movements from civil rights to feminism, died Monday morning “peacefully in her sleep at her home on Field Street in Detroit.” She was 100.

“Grace died as she lived: surrounded by books, politics, people and ideas,” Alice Jennings and Shea Howell, two of Boggs’ trustees, stated.

Howell continued, stating that Boggs’ close friends were able to raise funds to provide her with 24-hour care that allowed her to remain in her Detroit home until the very end.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle were “saddened” to hear of Boggs’ death. Obama was a community organizer in Chicago in the 80s. He spoke about Boggs’ character in a statement.

“Grace dedicated her life to serving and advocating for the rights of others — from her community activism in Detroit, to her leadership in the civil rights movement, to her ideas that challenged us all to lead meaningful lives.”

Grace Lee Boggs, Activist, Dies At 100
(Photo courtesy of American Revolutionary)

On June 27, 1915, in Providence, Rhode Island, Grace Chin Lee was born to Chinese immigrants. New York City was the background for her childhood; her father owned the Times Square restaurant Chin Lee’s.

Shea Howell has known Boggs for more than 40 years and helped co-found the Boggs Center. Howell states that Boggs spent her entire life pushing people to ask hard questions and challenge the status quo.

“When she was born above her father’s restaurant and cried, the workers in the restaurant said, ‘You should put her on the hillside. She’s just a girl — and she cries too much,'” Howell told the Huffington Post. “[Grace] said she knew from the beginning that the world needed to change.”

After graduating from Barnard College in 1935 and receiving her doctorate in philosophy from Bryn Mawr, Boggs searched for a job but found nothing.

“Even department stores would say, ‘We don’t hire Orientals,'” she recalled.

So she packed up and headed to Chicago, where she found a job at the University of Chicago’s Philosophy Library. Considering the $10 per week stipend was so low, she was forced to obtain free housing, as well as the rats that accompanied the basement in which she was living. At one point, while walking through her neighborhood, she came across a protest group fighting against poor living conditions. Boggs felt connected to the black community for the first time.

“I was aware that people were suffering, but it was more of a statistical thing,” Boggs said. “Here in Chicago I was coming into contact with it as a human thing.”

In the 40s, she left Chicago for Detroit to help edit a radical newsletter titled Correspondence. It was there that she met James Boggs, aka Jimmy, an autoworker and activist. On the same night that Jimmy refused to eat the meal that Grace had prepared for him and he insulted her taste in music, the pair became engaged, and in 1953, they were married.

Grace Lee Boggs, Asian-American Activist, Dies At 100
Grace and James Boggs married in 1953. (Photo courtesy of American Revolutionary.)

When James Boggs died in 1993, Grace became even more active in Detroit’s activist communities.

“I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do on my own or, indeed, whether there was any ‘my own.’ That is what often happens when you lose the person with whom you have lived and worked closely for decades,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Especially if you are a woman, you need time to re-create yourself, to discover who you are.”

After Grace’s death, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan released a statement.

“Grace Lee Boggs was a force for promoting social change, and we were lucky she chose to call Detroit her home. Through her activism, she fought for civil rights, social justice and income equality. She made Detroit — and the world — a better place.”

Plans for a memorial have not yet been announced.

[Featured image by Robin Holland]