Portia Washington Pittman, teacher, as committed as her father
Portia W. Pittman
Portia Washington Pittman was born on this date in 1883, in Tuskegee, AL. She was an African American musician and teacher, and the only daughter of Booker T. and Fanny (Smith) Washington.
Her father was the founder of Tuskegee Institute. After her mother's death in 1884, Portia was cared for by nursemaids and two stepmothers. An accomplished pianist by the age of ten, she attended New England's finest boarding schools, including Framingham State Normal School in Massachusetts in 1895, Tuskegee Institute, and, in 1901, Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
In 1905, Washington was the first Black to obtain a degree from the Bradford Academy (now Bradford Junior College). On Halloween 1907, in the chapel of Tuskegee Institute, she married William Sidney Pittman, a Tuskegee student and teacher she had met in 1900. They decided to begin afresh in Washington, D.C., where he set up an architectural practice and built their home in Fairmont Heights, Maryland. Between 1908 and 1912, she gave birth to her three children.
Pittman made her concert debut in a joint recital with Clarence Cameron White in May 1908 in Washington, and toured. Money problems plagued them, Sidney's architectural contracts dried up, and Pittman began giving private piano lessons for income. Her husband’s vanity was wounded by his wife's having to work as well as by her family's fame. In 1913, Pittman’s husband moved the family to Dallas, TX. After contracts again dropped off, financial difficulties again plagued Portia's life. On November 14, 1915, Portia’s father died,and three years later, a fire destroyed their second Dallas home.
But improvement in the family's fortunes began at this time, as her husband became the president of the Brotherhood of Negro Building Mechanics of Texas. In 1925, Portia began teaching music at Booker T. Washington High School. She also chaired the education department of the Texas Association of Negro Musicians. In March 1927, at the National Education Association convention in Dallas, while nearly 7,500 teachers attended, a 600-voice choir from Booker T. Washington High School, under Portia's direction, sang a medley of popular and spiritual songs. It was the first time in history that a Black high school group had appeared on the National Education Association (NEA) program. NEA president Randall J. Condon, a Los Angeles, CA, principal, judged the performance a "complete success."
In 1928 Pittman hit his daughter, Fannie. Portia packed, took Fannie, left Pittman, and began teaching piano, public school music, glee club, and choir at Tuskegee that same year. The school had changed since her father's death and now demanded that all faculty members have academic degrees in order to teach. Lacking such credentials, Portia was removed from the faculty by 1939, but opened her own private music studio in her home. In 1944, at age 61, she retired. She now dedicated herself to a campaign to have her father's Virginia birthplace preserved as a national monument.
Her efforts to memorialize her father bore fruit on May 23, 1946, when a bust of her father was installed in the Hall of Fame in New York. On August 7, 1946, President Harry Truman signed a bill "authorizing the minting of five million Booker T. Washington commemorative fifty-cent coins." She also oversaw the establishment of the Booker T. Washington Foundation to provide academic scholarships for Black students. Portia suffered financial and a health problem during the last years of her life, yet was inspired by the rediscovery of Black history during the 1960s and the assurance that her father would be remembered as a great African-American leader. She died on February 26, 1978, in Washington, D.C.
Biographical Dictionary of Afro-American and African Musicians
(Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1982).
Portia: The Life of Portia Washington Pittman, the Daughter of Booker T. Washington
Ruth Ann Stewart,
(Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1977).
Pittman, Portia Washington