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This date in 1854 marks the birth of Olivia Davidson Washington. She was a Black educator and administrator, and a critical factor in the creation and success of Tuskegee Institute with her peer and husband, Booker T. Washington.
The daughter of an ex-slave and freeborn mother (Elias and Eliza), Davidson was one of seven children born in Virginia. The entire family migrated to southern Ohio in 1857, where Elias died, prompting Eliza to settle further north in Albany and Athens. This area was influential as an environment for Olivia’s education at the Enterprise Academy and an atmosphere of strong anti-slavery sentiment (the site for three routes of the Underground Railroad). Davidson knew and interacted with many Oberlin College liberals and the ever-changing urban area. She began teaching at the age of sixteen in Ohio and Mississippi.
In 1886, she addressed the Alabama State Teacher Association on the topic “How Shall We Make the Women of Our Race Stronger?” stating the way to improve the situation for Black Americans was to work with the girls who were the “Hope of the Race.” After two years in the Magnolia State, Davidson accepted employment in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a challenging time due to the worst four-year financial period in the city’s history and a yellow fever epidemic in 1878. She was on summer break in Ohio when the epidemic broke out.
Davidson offered her services as a nurse but was advised to spend time studying at Hampton Normal A & I in Virginia. Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes financed Davidson’s scholarship to Hampton. She delivered her class commencement address. Booker T. Washington (class of 1875) was the postgraduate speaker at the ceremony. She further studied at the Framingham State Normal School.
But she was ill upon her departure, the the first sign of her failing health. Soon thereafter she left for Tuskegee, where she served as teacher, curriculum specialist, principal, fund-raiser, and builder as well as confidant, wife, and mother. Davidson and Washington were wed in August of 1886; she was stepmother to his daughter Portia and gave birth to two sons, Booker, Jr., and Ernest.
She died on May 9th 1889. Olivia Davidson’s story examines one of the many missing women in history; her accomplishments were many, among them, she was co-founder of an institution that prospers today.
Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York