Washington, Margaret Murray (c. 1861–1925)

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Washington, Margaret Murray (c. 1861–1925)

African-American educator and lecturer who, while married to Booker T. Washington, played a significant role in the administration of Tuskegee Institute. Born Margaret James Murray on March 9, around 1861 (though her tombstone is inscribed 1865); died on June 4, 1925; buried on the campus of Tuskegee Institute; daughter of Lucy Murray (a washerwoman) and an unknown white father born in Ireland; became third wife of Booker T. Washington (1856–1915, founder of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute and one of the great African-American leaders), on October 12, 1892; stepchildren: (one daughter) Portia Marshall Washington; (two sons) Booker Taliaferro Washington, Jr., and Ernest Davidson Washington.

Although Margaret Murray Washington was probably born in 1861, her birth year is listed as 1865 on her gravestone. The editor of the Booker T. Washington Papers, Louis R. Harlan, suggests that she may have altered her age upon entering Fisk Preparatory School in 1881. Her mother Lucy Murray was a washerwoman, and there is no written trace of her white father, an Irish immigrant, other than a published statement that he died when she was seven.

It took Margaret eight years to complete Fisk University's preparatory school and college. During that time, she was associate editor of the student newspaper and served as president of a literary society. She also formed an enduring friendship with fellow student W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1889, after earning her degree, she began teaching at Tuskegee Institute. A year later, she assumed the position of lady principal at a salary of $500 a year, plus board. She first met her future husband, head of Tuskegee Institute Booker T. Washington, at a dinner of graduating seniors just prior to the June 1889 Fisk commencement, about a month after the death of his second wife Olivia Davidson Washington (his first wife Fanny Norton Smith Washington had died on May 4, 1884). The course of the affection that developed between Margaret and Booker is not easily discernable from surviving documents. However, by late 1891 he had proposed.

Margaret's poor relationship with Booker's family initially influenced her to reject his proposal. She quarreled with Booker's favorite brother James Washington and could not tolerate James' wife. Although she enjoyed a good association with Washington's two sons from his previous marriage, she and his eldest child, Portia Washington , were hostile toward each other for years. Nevertheless, on October 12, 1892, Booker and Margaret were married in Tuskegee. Scholars have had difficulty assessing the Washingtons' marriage since few published letters between them exist. Although Booker T. Washington had yet to deliver his speech at the Atlanta Exposition of 1895, an event that would propel him into national celebrity, he was away from home as much as six months of the year speaking and fund-raising and had little time for his family. Margaret often joined him and, in 1899, accompanied him on a European trip. Some historians judge their marriage as one of practicality and convenience in which Margaret provided the stability of a home life for her busy husband. However, Margaret was clearly working hard to achieve their common goals, and no visible disunity between them can be documented.

Margaret was an able assistant in fund-raising, as well. According to Notable Black American Women, it was Andrew Carnegie's admiration for her, plus the fact that she was a Fisk graduate, that enabled her husband to persuade Carnegie to withdraw the stipulation that his $25,000 gift to Tuskegee be matched. Moreover, evidence suggests that in the early years Margaret advised her husband on his speeches and frequently spoke on the same program. While Booker T. Washington was addressing civic leaders and clergy during the day and community meetings at night, Margaret would be speaking with local women during the afternoons.

Wishing to exercise financial independence, Margaret continued working at Tuskegee following her marriage, serving in several capacities. In 1900, she was the director of the department of domestic science, which included laundering, cooking, dressmaking, and sewing. She was also involved in the development of Dorothy Hall, which housed the girls' industries. She served on the executive committee, which ran Tuskegee during Booker T. Washington's absences. And eventually she became dean of women, continuing her service to the institution after her husband's death in 1915. Her marriage also meant that she was responsible for the tasks traditionally assigned to a president's wife—receiving and entertaining the numerous distinguished visitors drawn by Tuskegee's favorable reputation. She was also active in the school's woman's club, which focused on temperance work in its meetings twice a month. Margaret supported the institution's tradition of reaching out to African-American farmers by performing plantation work at a settlement eight miles away. She also devoted her Saturdays to the mothers' meeting in Tuskegee, which by 1904 had grown to an attendance of nearly 300 women.

Through her position and commitment to social reform, Margaret dedicated substantial energy to the women's club movement. In July 1895, she attended a meeting in Boston that resulted in the formation of the National Federation of Afro-American Women, and became its vice-president. When she assumed the presidency a year later, the number of affiliated clubs had more than doubled. About a year after that, the group merged with the Colored Women's League to become the National Association of Colored Women; Margaret served as secretary of the executive board, becoming president in 1914.

From 1919 until her death in 1925, Washington presided over the Alabama Association of Women's Clubs. During her tenure as president, plans for the Rescue Home for Girls in Mt. Meigs were completed. She also influenced the approach of black club women to the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (CIC), a primarily white organization founded in 1918. As well, she was involved in an attempt to bring black and white club women together for a common program of action in 1920. That same year, Washington was instrumental in founding the International Council of Women of the Darker Races, which promoted the appreciation of the history and achievements of people of color worldwide. However, in 1925, before the group could become firmly established, Margaret Murray Washington died.


Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland

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