Washington, Olivia Davidson (1854–1889)

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Washington, Olivia Davidson (1854–1889)

African-American educator who founded Tuskegee Institute with her husband Booker T. Washington. Name variations: Olivia America Davidson. Born Olivia America Davidson on June 11, 1854, in Mercer County, Virginia; died on May 9, 1889, in Boston, Massachusetts; daughter of Elias Davidson (a free laborer and former slave) and Eliza (Webb) Davidson; attended Hampton Institute, 1878–79; graduated from the State Normal School in Framingham, Massachusetts, on June 29, 1881; married Booker T. Washington (1856–1915, one of the great African-American leaders), on August 11, 1886; children: Booker T. Washington, Jr. (b. 1887); Ernest Washington (b. 1889); stepdaughter Portia Washington.

Olivia Davidson Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute with her husband Booker T. Washington, was born free on June 11, 1854, in Mercer County, Virginia. Her father Elias, who was listed as a slave in the 1846 will of his owner, Joseph Davidson, appears in the 1850 census as a free laborer. Records suggest that her mother Eliza Webb was the daughter of a "free colored" woman. When Virginia became too dangerous for free blacks, the Davidsons migrated to southern Ohio, settling in Ironton. There were ten children in the Davidson family and since it is known that the older ones attended school in Ironton, it is believed that Olivia, who turned six in 1860, began her schooling there as well. Olivia is thought to have attended high school in Gallipolis, Ohio, where she was living with her sister Mary Davidson (Elliott) and her sister's doctor husband, Noah Elliott. Margaret Davidson , another sister, was a teacher, and Olivia accompanied her to Memphis, Tennessee, to teach among the freedmen in the South. Historians believe that Olivia eventually moved there to be near Margaret and their brother Joseph, who was residing with Margaret at the time. Soon after Olivia's arrival, Margaret died and, shortly after that, Joseph was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Devastated, Olivia returned to Ohio to teach school; she was barely 16 years of age. Whether through financial need or devotion alone, though, Olivia began to teach in Mississippi and Arkansas during her summer vacations.

In 1874, she accepted a position as a sixthgrade teacher at the Clay Street School in Memphis. The opening of this new school was marked by controversy over integrated staffs at black schools; blacks demanded that their schools be staffed only by black teachers and administrators. Despite the conflict and perpetually inadequate funding, Olivia gained experience in newer teaching methods and changes in curricula. Exhausted from a heavy workload, however, and still grieving the loss of her sister and brother, she returned to Ohio for a summer of relaxation in 1878. That fall, she received a scholarship from Lucy Webb Hayes , wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes, to enroll in the senior class program at Hampton Institute. The ambitious program included the study of reading, English literature, algebra, bookkeeping, history, political economy, elements of agriculture, civil government, grammar, chemistry, and the Bible. At her graduation the following May, she delivered an essay on "Decision of Character." The postgraduate speaker was Booker T. Washington and, together, they formed a partnership to found an institute of higher learning for the black population that would become Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

At the age of 25, Olivia received support for two years of study at the State Normal School in Framingham, Massachusetts. During her stay there, she learned advanced teaching techniques and made several important friendships. Upon graduating with honors in 1881, Olivia became ill and returned to Hampton Institute to recuperate and to provide schooling for Native Americans during the summer. Although poor health prevented her from joining Booker T. Washington for the opening of Tuskegee Institute on July 4, she arrived there in late August and devoted all her energy to the school's success. Since the state provided little in the way of financial support, fund-raising was an ongoing and vital aspect of the school's survival. Land acquisition and the construction of buildings accounted for a large portion of Tuskegee's budget; however, salaries also needed to be paid and impoverished students needed assistance. Olivia was instrumental in organizing local fund-raising efforts and traveling to the North whenever necessary, utilizing contacts she had made while a student at Framingham. She also brought to her role at Tuskegee the vast experience she had gained as a teacher. In the position of lady principal, she oversaw the female students in all aspects of their on-campus lives—dormitory living, industrial work, and class work. As the equal partner of Booker T. Washington in the administration of the school, her influence was felt everywhere; he credited her above everyone else with Tuskegee Institute's success.

Olivia's strenuous schedule, however, taxed her fragile strength, and she again fell ill in late 1883. During the course of her long convalescence, Booker T. Washington's first wife Fanny Norton Smith Washington passed away, and in 1886 he and Olivia were married. According to Notable Black American Women, their relationship appears to have been warm and loving, despite her consistently poor health. She also established a good relationship with his daughter from his first marriage, Portia Washington . Their first son, Booker, Jr., was born in 1887, and despite concern over her health for a number of months, their second son Ernest Davidson was born early the next year. Two days after his birth, their home caught fire, and Olivia, who was having increasing problems with her throat, was taken out into the early morning chill and never recovered from the exposure. Seeking medical treatment first in Montgomery and then in Boston, she died of tuberculosis of the larynx on May 9, 1889, at Massachusetts General Hospital.


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

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland

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Washington, Olivia Davidson (1854–1889)

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