Poet and among the first African-American female poets published in the United States, Bernice Love Wiggins was born on March 4, 1897, in Austin, Texas, to Jessie Austin Love and Josephine Johnson. Her father, J. Austin Love, was a college-educated, black poet-laborer and state Sunday school director for the local Holiness Church. Bernice’s mother died on January 12, 1902, when Bernice was only four years old. Her mother’s family background and interests are unknown save that her young child Bernice was orphaned in 1903 and taken in by an aunt, Margaret Spiller, who lived in El Paso, Texas. In 1915 Bernice Love married Allen D. Wiggins of Terrell, Texas, who was a construction foreman living in El Paso.
Bernice’s first grade teacher, Alice Lydia McGowan, encouraged her in the skill of inventing and reciting rhythmical lines. She later learned and practiced the art of versification at El Paso’s Douglass High School. Initially, Bernice gained a reputation by presenting her poems orally in her own community. Wiggins’s self-published anthology, Tuneful Tales (1925), is her only book of poetry and provides full evidence of her ability as a poet; however, she remained unknown. Scholars agree that contributing factors to her relative obscurity and limited recognition as a poet were the remoteness of her physical location in El Paso (which was far from the centers of literary activity in the United States) and the fact that her single book of poetry was self-published. Some of her poems were published and received positive reviews in the El Paso Herald, the Chicago Defender, the Houston Informer, the New York Amsterdam News, the Half Century Magazine, and in J. Mason Brewer’s Heralding Dawn: An Anthology of Verse (1936). Brewer, Austin folklorist and critic, called her the best of her contemporaries and compared her to Paul Laurence Dunbar. Wiggins used standard, idiom, and dialect language in her verse and wrote profoundly to find meaning in the black experience. Her poetry exhibits keen attention to general and nuanced behavior, and, in this sense, the tone and style of her writings are evocative of Dunbar and other great Harlem Renaissance writers such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer. Some of Wiggins’s thematic concerns are the ordinary black community, local personalities, love, political and social growth, the church, African heritage, culture, aesthetics, poverty, women’s rights, racism, lynchings, and relations between parents and children.
Sometime between 1920 and 1927, Bernice divorced Allen D. Wiggins and moved to Los Angeles, California. In 1927 she married Thomas Brackett Clay of Louisiana and spent the remainder of her life in Los Angeles. Little else is known about Bernice after she published Tuneful Tales and moved to California. The California Eagle, an African-American newspaper printed in Los Angeles, briefly mentions that she was teaching theater to children at a local African Methodist Episcopal church. Otherwise, the details of the latter half of her life remain largely unknown. What is known is that she died on January 27, 1936, and was buried under the name Bernice Love Clay in Los Angeles’s Evergreen Cemetery.
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