Old map of Southeastern Ohio
Women Promoting Education in Southeast Ohio

Olivia America Davidson (1854-1889)

About Olivia Davidson

Educating Freed Children: Olivia Davidson was born on June 11, 1854, in Mercer County, [West] Virginia. Prior to the Civil War, her parents—an enslaved person recently freed and a free woman of color—moved to Ohio, where she attended a segregated school in Ironton and later the Albany Enterprise Institute, a school run by and for Free Blacks. After graduating, she started teaching small children in Gallipolis, and in 1872 followed her sister Margaret to Mississippi to help educate freed children.

Fleeing Violence: She taught for four years in the Memphis, Tennessee, public school system, but concerns about yellow fever and violence against Blacks drove her back to Southeast Ohio. A scholarship sponsored by the wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes enabled her to join the senior class at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University), a private historically black college in Virginia. An impressed teacher, Mrs. Mary Hemenway of Boston, sponsored her to continue her education at the State Normal School in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Advocating for Black Girls: She graduated from Hampton in 1881, and Booker T. Washington recruited her to Alabama to help him build the new Tuskegee Institute. Her considerable experience helped her shape the curriculum of the Institute’s Normal School during its formative years. She was a tireless recruiter and fund-raiser, leading local efforts and reaching out to northern communities during a period of meager state funding. In April 1886, Davidson delivered an address to the Alabama State Teachers’ Association in Selma titled “How Shall We Make the Women of Our Race Stronger?” She urged that Black girls needed better access to education and argued for their self-improvement through reading clubs, temperance, and community engagement.


Her Time

Less than two decades after the end of the Civil War, Olivia Davidson and Booker T. Washington pursued their own college degrees and then worked to expand access to higher education for Blacks. They looked to wealthy philanthropists of the day—Carnegie, Rockefeller, Easton and more—to help fund these efforts.


Marrying Booker T. Washington in Athens, Ohio

On Aug. 11, 1886, she married Booker T. Washington at her sister’s home in Athens on Washington Street, before returning to Tuskegee. The couple had two children, Booker Jr. (born in 1887) and Ernst (born in 1889). Twice having suffered from consumption, her health never recovered from exposure after Ernst’s birth and an accidental house fire in February 1889. She passed away on May 9 after receiving treatment in Boston.  Her husband paid tribute to her in his own biography, and in a letter to his mentor, General Samuel C. Armstrong: “Few will ever know what she has done for Tuskegee and for me."

House on Washington Street in Athens
House on Washington Street in Athens where Olivia Davidson married Booker T. Washington.

References: Carolyn A. Dorsey, “Olivia America Davidson Washington,” in Darlene Clark Hine, ed. Black Women in America (2 ed.) , New York: Oxford University Press, 2005; electronic edition.

Booker T. Washington and Tuskeegee Institute National Park website