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Educator, Speechwriter, and Reformer
"We must have a cleaner social morality"
Taken from a childhood card set honoring African American legends and made by KNOWLEDGE CARDS.
In the years following the Civil War and Reconstruction, the American nation experienced a period of major growth. An America that had lost over half a million of its own people in 1865 found itself competing with the industrial might of overseas empires within a generation. The American South was rebuilt under the auspices of the “New South.”
Despite the pervasiveness of de jure and de facto segregation, African American populations steadfastly worked to build institutions and monuments that honored their survival and their love for America’s highest ideals.
Margaret Murray Washington was at the epicenter of a new wave of African American liberation. (It featured many minds that had not experienced the humiliation of being forcibly put in chains.) Washington also outlived her famous husband and created her own reverberating legacy. She is an important national figure and a symbol of America’s cultural dynamism.
Margaret Murray was either born in 1861 or 1865 in Macon, Mississippi. She was a voracious reader during a turbulent childhood. Her mother was a washerwoman and her father was an Irish immigrant who died when she was seven. After this event, she moved in with a Quaker couple. They encouraged her to teach, one of the few occupations open to women. Impressively, she was offered a teaching position at fourteen for displaying academic advancement.
The education systems in the deep southern states were still small and under developed at this time. It’s a testament to the height of the barriers that Margaret Murray Washington gracefully hurdled over.
At nineteen, she entered Fisk University where her education further blossomed. She completed both a college preparatory program and a college program.
At her graduation dinner, she met the twice-widowed Booker T. Washington. By now, Mr. Washington had established the founding principle of Tuskegee Institute with the immense help of his last two partners. Washington’s first wife, Fannie N. Smith, died from wounds after she was involved in a carriage accident. Years later, Mr. Washington’s second wife, Olivia A. Davidson, died from health problems after giving birth to their second child. She also had prior exposure to illness through her work and travels.
Being widowed was something Mr. Washington shared with the president he would visit in the White House years later, Theodore Roosevelt.
In 1881, Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (University in 1985) was founded by Lewis Adams, a former slave who could read and write. Adams bargained with a local politician running for office - Colonel W.F. Foster.
Foster followed through and influenced the passing of legislation calling for “the establishment of a Negro Normal School in Tuskegee.”
Jim Crow laws and state-run terrorism rackets targeting a potential Black electorate went unabated. But, a seed for the future was planted.
Murray became the Dean of the Women’s Department, or affectionately known as Tuskegee’s Lady Principle. She embraced a philosophy of practical instruction. In the 1890s, that meant “domestic science” for women.
As the homes among the Colored race make progress, so will the race itself advance.
Margaret Murray Washington’s “mother’s meetings” also provided child care and literacy training.
Washington published manuals for rural African American women including her own essays on self-improvement and hygiene. In these years, she accompanied her husband on his speaking tours and travels. She wrote and edited her husband’s speeches.
Margaret Murray Washington also focused her reform efforts towards a community outside of the Tuskegee campus. The residents of Elizabeth Russell plantation were farmers and former convicts who were plagued by rural poverty. Washington’s later activism for prison reform can be traced back to her involvement at this plantation. Margaret and the Tuskegee Women’s Club (which she created) taught housekeeping skills to rural women within the paradigm of a very segregated, gendered, and class-based southern society. She and other clubwomen also aimed to hang images of African American leaders in segregated spaces.
Washington traveled to Boston, Massachusetts for the First National Conference of the Colored Women of America in 1895. She gave a speech entitled, “Individual Work for Moral Elevation” and it impressed the new National Federation of Afro-American Women. It helped her get elected president. Some disagreed with her emphasis on “practical housewifery.” This included the Colored Women’s League of Washington D.C., led by Mary Church Terrell.
Still, honored leaders came together from all factions to form the National Association of Colored Women. Other charter members were Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, Frances Harper, and Harriett Tubman.
The organization is integral in the early fights to pass federal anti-lynching laws.
Mary Church Terrell and Margaret Murray Washington would differ in their liberation philosophies, like many leaders. Washington’s embrace of more archaic and domesticated systems was also emblematic of southern genteel culture’s impact on the region’s African American populations. They were also building their roots in this fascinating and intrinsically beautiful part of our nation.
Women’s clubs in the South differed from their cosmopolitan counterparts to the North for a variety of reasons. This divide (and the frustrations that followed) are what led to the Washington family being criticized as “accommodationist” by many African Americans from other regions with other ideals.
Just like in the larger American nation, African Americans shed America’s regional cultures in nationalized settings. It speaks to a larger and unifying truth about American culture regardless of background.
Danielle Dreilinger writes:
W.E.B. Du Bois and others criticized Washington and her husband for focusing on individual effort in a structurally racist world. Washington did think that if poor Black farmers led respectably middle-class lives, whites would have to respect them. However, she also thought that sitting on a chair instead of a bed or the floor, even if the chair was just a box covered with calico, built self-respect—and for Southern Black families, self-respect was a political statement in itself.
Margaret Murray Washington’s activism was foundational in the beginning decades of the last century. She founded country schools, advocated for prison reform/improvements, and aided in the establishment of the Mount Meigs School for boys. She also established an industrial school at Tuskegee for girls.
In 1920, years after the death of her husband, Margaret Murray Washington participated in the Memphis Women’s Interracial Conference. She founded the International Council of Women of Darker Races in 1921 which aimed to fight racism at a global level.
She died five years later and was buried next to her husband at the university cemetery.
Margaret Murray Washington was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1972 for “her compassion, intelligence, and independence of judgement.”
This influential and inspirational figure was a symbol of uplift and self-pride. At the same time, she displayed values and sensitivities that may be deemed “socially conservative” by some. Taking philosophy out of it, however, Margaret Murray Washington worked with women nationwide, despite some ideological differences, and helped to propel all women forward as caretakers, educators, and organizers.
Most importantly, she was a powerful voice for African American families surviving Jim Crow legal systems and habitual terror campaigns.
African Americans, in this region especially, found themselves in a peculiar position that demanded strength and perseverance.
It was an age of exploitation and political violence.
African American populations were blamed for the carnage of the Civil War (most pervasively in the southern states), and a whitewashing campaign swept the land known as the “Lost Cause.” It all but erased the African American experience during the dark Civil War years as well as the moral weight of fighting against entrenched, industrial slavery.
African Americans relied on small victories in hopes that it would accumulate over time into an avalanche of liberty.
Those dreams, hopes, and efforts came to fruition in the decades following the death of Margaret Murray Washington. As president, Republican Calvin Coolidge sent sympathies.
*Margaret Murray Washington will return when Mary Church Terrell is discussed.