Olivia A. Davidson

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A photograph of Olivia Davidson Washington, published in 1901.

Olivia America Davidson Washington (11 June 1854 – 9 May 1889) was born free as Olivia America Davidson in Virginia. After her family moved to the free state of Ohio, she studied in common schools and later college. She became a teacher and educator.

Davidson was hired by Booker T. Washington as a teacher and assistant principal of the Tuskegee Institute from 1881. In this role she also did fundraising and gave public speeches, especially about the education of African-American women. In 1886 she married Washington, the principal, as his second wife; they had two sons together and reared his daughter by his first marriage. She died young of tuberculosis.

Early life and education[edit]

Olivia America Davidson was born on June 11, 1854 in Mercer County, Virginia, now Mercer County, West Virginia, to a free woman of color and a man who had been freed from slavery. Her father was Elias Davidson, who worked in agriculture. She had at least two sisters and a brother. When Olivia was still a child, her family left western Virginia because of the discriminatory treatment of free blacks and moved to Ironton, Ohio, in a free state. Some time after her father Elias died, the family moved to Albany, Ohio. Davidson continued to study at common schools.[1] By 1870, she was living with her sister Mary and brother-in-law Noah Elliot in Gallipolis. Her sister, a dressmaker and milliner, relocated several times before settling in Columbus, Ohio.

Education career[edit]

In 1870, at the age of sixteen, Davidson began teaching in parts of Ohio, Mississippi, and Arkansas, spending some time in Spencer, Mississippi.[1] In 1874, she became a sixth-grade teacher in the new Clay Street School in Memphis, Tennessee (now the Booker T. Washington High School). Her sister Margaret was also a teacher here and her brother Joseph lived and worked in the city. Her principal instituted changes recommended by Davidson. While she was in Memphis, her sister Margaret died. In 1878 her brother Joseph was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, at a time of violence to suppress black voting. Davidson returned to Ohio shortly thereafter.[citation needed]

That year she enrolled as a senior at the Hampton Institute, now Hampton University. She did so well that 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), where she studied to be a teacher. Davidson graduated on June 29, 1881 as one of six honor students. Davidson returned to Hampton to rest, recover from a serious illness, and to teach Native Americans who had been enrolled there after being released as prisoners of war from a Florida fort. They were from Plains Tribes.

Booker T. Washington, who had been the postgraduate speaker at Hampton, contacted Davidson, asking her to help him open Tuskegee. After recovering from her illness, she joined him on August 25, 1881 as a teacher and vice principal.[2] She threw herself into the work despite her precarious health, becoming Washington's partner in building Tuskegee. His first wife, Fannie N. Smith, died in 1884.

On August 11, 1886 in Athens, Ohio, Davidson married Washington.[3] She served as stepmother to young Portia Washington, the child of Booker T.'s first marriage.[4]

In 1886, Olivia Davidson Washington 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 her contacts up north.[4]

Her first son, Booker T., Jr., was born May 29, 1887. Their second son, Ernest Davidson Washington, was born February 6, 1889. Two days later, the Washingtons' house at Tuskegee burned down. Olivia Washington suffered exposure to the early morning cold and likely already had contracted tuberculosis (TB), which often progressed slowly. Her health deteriorated further, and she died some three months later of laryngeal TB on May 9, 1889, at Massachusetts General Hospital.


  1. ^ a b Dorsey, Carolyn A. "The Pre-Hampton Years of Olivia A. Davidson," The Hampton Review 14. Fall 1988. 44-52.
  2. ^ http://www.tuskegee.edu/about_us/legacy_of_leadership/booker_t_washington/establishing_a_legacy.aspx. Tuskegee, Tuskegee University
  3. ^ "Olivia Davidson and Booker T. Washington Wedding Invitation", FSU Historical Image Collection, 2013, Paper 64, [1]
  4. ^ a b "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