Olivia A. Davidson

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A photograph of Olivia Davidson Washington, published in 1901.

Olivia America Davidson Washington was a co-founder of the Tuskegee Institute and the second wife of Booker T. Washington. She was born on June 11, 1854 in Mercer County, Virginia, now Mercer County, West Virginia, to a freed slave and a free black woman. She died May 9, 1889.

Mrs. Washington's family fled Virginia because of the treatment of free blacks and went to Ironton, Ohio. Some time after her father Elias died, the family moved to Albany, Ohio, where Washington continued to get a common school education.[1] She lived with her sister Mary and brother-in-law Noah Elliot in Gallipolis, Ohio at the time of the 1870 Census. Her sister, a dressmaker and milliner, relocated several times before going to Columbus, Ohio.

In 1870, at the age of sixteen, Mrs. Washington began teaching in parts of Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas, spending some time in Spencer, Mississippi.[2] In 1874, she became a sixth-grade teacher in the new Clay Street School in Memphis, Tennessee, now the Booker T. Washington High School, where her sister Margaret was also a teacher and where her brother Joseph lived. There, her principal instituted changes that she had recommended. While she was in Memphis, her sister Margaret died and her brother Joseph was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. She returned to Ohio shortly thereafter, in 1878.

That year she enrolled as a senior at the Hampton Institute, now Hampton University. She was one of the graduation speakers on May 22, 1879. From there, she attended the State Normal School at Framingham, Massachusetts (now Framingham State University). She graduated on June 29, 1881 one of six honor students. Mrs. Washington then returned to Hampton to rest, recover from a serious illness, and to teach the Indians. Booker T. Washington, who had been the postgraduate speaker at Hampton, contacted her and asked her to help him open Tuskegee. After recovering from her illness, she joined him as a teacher and vice principal on August 25, 1881.[3] She threw herself into the work and labored unceasingly despite precarious health, becoming Booker T.'s partner in building Tuskegee.

On August 11, 1886 in Athens, Ohio, she married Booker T. Washington, two years after the death of his first wife, Fannie N. Smith.[4] She also served as stepmother to Portia, the child of Booker T.'s first marriage. Also in 1886, she addressed the Alabama State Teachers' Association on the topic of "How Shall We Make the Women of Our Race Stronger?," advocating that teachers strive to reach black girls as the "hope of the race." During her time at Tuskegee, she helped fundraise for the school both locally and through and through her contacts up north.[5]

Their first son, Booker, Jr., was born May 29, 1887. Their second son, Ernest Davidson, was born February 6, 1889. Two days later, their house burned down, and she suffered exposure to the early morning cold. Her health deteriorated further, and she died some three months later of laryngeal tuberculosis on May 9, 1889, at Massachusetts General Hospital.


  1. ^ Dorsey, Carolyn A. "The Pre-Hampton Years of Olivia A. Davidson." The Hampton Review 14. Fall 1988. 44-52.
  2. ^ Dorsey, Carolyn A. "The Pre-Hampton Years of Olivia A. Davidson." The Hampton Review 14. Fall 1988. 44-52.
  3. ^ http://www.tuskegee.edu/about_us/legacy_of_leadership/booker_t_washington/establishing_a_legacy.aspx. Tuskegee , Tuskegee University
  4. ^ "Olivia Davidson and Booker T. Washington Wedding Invitation" (2013). FSU Historical Image Collection. Paper 64. http://digitalcommons.framingham.edu/lib_aschistcoll/64
  5. ^ "Olivia Davidson Washington." Notable Black American Women. Gale, 1992. Biography In Context. Web. 24 Oct. 2013.


  • "Olivia Davidson Washington." Notable Black American Women, Book 1. Gale Research, 1992.

Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2008. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC Document Number: K1623000473