Life and Legacy: Emily Bourne Grigsby

Emily Bourne Grigsby was a passionate advocate for women’s issues, a 30-year member and generous supporter of Atlanta History Center, and an apparent jane of all trades. She was a fundamental part of the fabric of the Atlanta community for more than 70 years, a legacy that began when she moved here with her husband in 1945. Her contributions to the cultural and historical preservation of our city helped give proper recognition to the histories of notable women who had previously been excluded from the conversation. Mrs. Grigsby’s extensive list of credentials and skills included opera singing, modeling, piloting planes, painting, interior decorating, and serving as an attorney–all highlighting her zest for life, which we hope to embrace and carry on. 

Grigsby was born in Kentucky in 1922, where she was raised and taught about the value of education from a young age. She credited her parents for inspiring her to live a determined life—fully pursuing her many dreams and interests. An early example of the determination with which she lived came from her father, Morton Humphrey Bourne, who suffered a stroke when Mrs. Grigsby was only four and subsequently taught himself how to walk and talk again. Mr. Bourne was a classically educated scholar and the founder of the University of Kentucky School of Law in addition to an orator, a farmer, a judge, and the owner and editor of a newspaper. His recovery from the aftermath of a stroke demonstrated to a young Mrs. Grigsby the effects of working hard and refusing to give up even when facing what seemed like impossible odds. Mrs. Grigsby’s mother, an artist and poet, taught her to appreciate her life and her health. After she fell ill with tuberculosis, Mrs. Bourne was committed to a sanatorium and died six years later. Mrs. Grigsby lost her mother at the age of 13 and the principal responsibility of raising the Bourne children fell to their father. 

Mr. Bourne sent his daughter to Sullins College in Virginia, a traditional women’s junior college, in 1940 so that she could finish her education. Mrs. Grigsby, however, felt confined and stifled by having to ask permission before leaving campus, to recite memory work for the Dean of Students, and to wear formal attire to every occasion. She left after one year and eventually finished her undergraduate education as a psychology major at Mills College in California, where she had moved with her husband, U.S. Naval officer Paul Grigsby. The pair married when Mrs. Grigsby was only 20 years old and lived adventurously together until Mr. Grigsby died in 2006. 

After graduating from college, Mrs. Grigsby joined the San Francisco Opera Company as their youngest chorus member while her husband served in the South Pacific theater of the Second World War. She performed with the company for three years before moving to Atlanta in 1945. Disappointed by the fact that there was no opera company in Atlanta at the time, she decided to occupy her time by exploring other interests, the first of which was modeling. Mrs. Grigsby became a runway model for Rich’s Department Store and several other fashion organizations, a pursuit that she cherished for 15 years. During this time, she also learned how to fly airplanes and earned her multi-engine pilot’s license, with over 700 hours of logged flight time. 

Further, Mrs. Grigsby began an illustrious career as a painter. Her interest in this field started when she was a student at Mills College and, after some time, blossomed into much more than a casual pastime. Not only did she debut her work at nearly 20 domestic and international art exhibitions, but she has donated much of her original paintings to the Irene and George Woodruff Family Residence Center within the Shepherd Center. She also filled her own Atlanta home with an abundance of her work. 

In 1975, she received a Master of Science in city planning from Georgia Tech and then earned a law degree from the Woodrow Wilson College of Law in 1982. With her law degree, she worked as an arbitrator and mediator. 

Mrs. Grigsby was a long-time friend, patron, and treasured member of Atlanta History Center. She became heavily involved and fostered a more personal relationship with us in 2015 when she sought to support programs that would highlight the lives of women in Georgia. That year, she named Atlanta History Center in her estate plans and facilitated the creation of The Emily Bourne Grigsby Fund, which will provide annual resources in perpetuity to be used to elevate women’s histories. Her other major contribution to our institution was the recommendation and donation of funds to install a lift in the historic Swan House, so that we could increase the accessibility of our exhibitions. Mrs. Grigsby’s forward-thinking mindset and dedication to living a passionate life place her firmly within the histories of Georgian women that she hoped for us at Atlanta History Center to make known.