Born May 23 1869 in Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York, Ward was the daughter of Eliza Draper and Abraham Ward, both of whom were of mixed African and Montauk descent. Ward’s mother died when she was about nine months old, and she and her father moved to Providence, Rhode Island. When Abraham remarried, he handed young Olivia over to her mother's sister, Maria Draper, who reared Olivia as her own.
In 1889, Ward married Frank Bush. The couple had two daughters, Rosamund and Maria. Ward commuted between Providence and Boston, working whatever jobs she could find to support her family. Despite long days working and commuting, she still managed to write and publish her first book of poetry, a slim volume called Original Poems, for which she received great reviews from Paul Laurence Dunbar, another African American poet.
Ward and Frank divorced around 1910, and Olivia and daughters Rosamund and Maria went to live with Aunt Maria. It was during these years, her interest in the arts more fully blossomed. From the most easterly end of the South Fork of Long Island, she served as the Montauk tribal historian, a position she held until 1916.
Ward moved to Chicago in 1916, where she published her second, more substantial, volume of poetry, Driftwood, her most popular publication. She was a regular contributor to the Colored America magazine and an avid supporter of the "New Negro Movement." Ward expresses her passion about the struggles of African Americans and the need for change through her writing. She also demonstrated her faith in God through her word. Ward’s work is notable for preserving regional and ethnic dialects in her work that would otherwise have no written record. A Montauket, she also spoke of the Native American experience in her work, preservingsome of the Montauk language and folklore. She reflected and celebrated traditional black as well as Montauk values (political, cultural, religious) in a world that largely ignored these rich traditions.
Ward married Anthony Banks in the early 1920s and established and ran the Bush-Banks School of Expression in Chicago, which became a safe, encouraging and enriching place for black artists to gather and nuture their art. Actors and musicians gave recitals and performances at the school. There, Ward continued her artistic endeavors, focusing on drama. She also worked teaching drama in the Chicago public school system.
In the 1930s, Ward returned east to live in New Rochelle and New York City. She counted civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois, poet and novelist Countee Cullen, and actor/singer Paul Robeson among her friends and she helped sculptor Richmond Barthé and author/poet Langston Hughes get their starts during the Harlem Renaissance.
In the 1930s she wrote an arts column and acted as arts editor for the Westchester Record-Courier during this time as well as served as a drama coach at the Abyssinian Baptist Church's Community Center. Abyssianian served as an important location for secular as well as religious music and art during the Harlem Renaissance. Ward wrote several plays and short stories, most of which were never published.
Olivia Ward Bush Banks died in 1944.