Margaret Murray Washington was one of the most revered women of her time and her accomplishments are notable. She was a pioneer in the black women's club movement, championed interracial cooperation, promoted black history in schools, and attempted to unite women of color around the world. Yet Margaret Murray Washington's historical legacy remains overshadowed by both her marriage to Booker T. Washington, the most renowned black leader of the early twentieth century, and her own conservative approach in the face of more radical peers.Ambiguity surrounds the birth and early...
Margaret Murray Washington was one of the most revered women of her time and her accomplishments are notable. She was a pioneer in the black women's club movement, championed interracial cooperation, promoted black history in schools, and attempted to unite women of color around the world. Yet Margaret Murray Washington's historical legacy remains overshadowed by both her marriage to Booker T. Washington, the most renowned black leader of the early twentieth century, and her own conservative approach in the face of more radical peers.Ambiguity surrounds the birth and early upbringing of Margaret James Murray, known to friends as Maggie. Her birthplace is sometimes mistakenly identified as Macon, Georgia, but she was actually born in Macon, Mississippi, a small town located halfway between Jackson, Mississippi, and Birmingham, Alabama. The exact date of her birth is unknown. Although it is most commonly reported as 9 March 1865, census records indicate that she may have been born four years earlier. Louis Harlan, editor of The Booker T. Washington Papers, speculates that Murray may have altered her age when applying to Fisk Preparatory School in 1881 to appear younger. Her mother, Lucy Murray, worked as a washerwoman, and her father, James Murray, was an Irish immigrant who died when she was seven. Her mother later married an African American man named Henry Brown, and Murray counted a total of nine siblings. Margaret Murray was described by contemporaries as an attractive woman with fair skin and blue eyes, likely assets in the color-conscious South.Shortly after her father's death, Murray was sent to live with the Sanderses, a Quaker brother and sister who were teachers in the Macon community. The Sanderses encouraged Murray to pursue a teaching career and she enrolled at Fisk in Nashville, Tennessee, where she completed both the preparatory program and her bachelor's degree. Murray excelled as a student and served as associate editor of The Fisk Herald, a student newspaper. She also headed the Young Ladies Lyceum, one of Fisk's literary societies. Among the classmates Murray befriended was W. E. B. Du Bois, who would later become her husband's most notable adversary. The third wife of Booker T. Washington, the educator and social reformer Margaret Murray achieved national celebrity in her own right as a pioneer of the women's club movement. (Library of Congress.) Margaret Murray first met Booker T. Washington when he spoke at her commencement in 1889. She had already written to him requesting a job at Tuskegee Institute, the industrial school he founded in Alabama, but apparently received no reply and accepted a teaching position at Prairie View College in Texas. When Washington arrived on Fisk's campus, Murray approached him and again requested a job. Impressed by her poise and confidence, Washington consented, and that fall Murray began teaching English at Tuskegee. Her dedication to the school made an immediate impact and she was promoted to Lady Principal the following year.Murray arrived at Tuskegee a few months after the death of Booker T. Washington's second wife, Olivia Davidson. His first wife, Fannie Smith, also died prematurely. Washington was now a widower twice over, with three small children in his care. His work raising funds for Tuskegee frequently took him away from the school. As Lady Principal, Murray regularly wrote to Washington during his absence to keep him abreast of campus affairs. The increasingly personal tone of her letters indicates that a romance was blossoming, but a crucial factor led Murray to remain cool to Washington's advances. She disliked children and was especially incompatible with Washington's eldest child and only daughter, Portia. She even went so far as to declare to Washington that she dreaded the thought of being thrown together with Portia for a lifetime. Like many prominent female educators and club women at the turn of the century, Murray did not have any biological children of her own. She explained that she would understand if Washington chose to abandon the relationship, but he did not. The two married in a small ceremony at Tuskegee on 12 October 1892, and Portia was soon sent to boarding school.Margaret Murray's marriage to Booker T. Washington enlarged her position at Tuskegee. As the president's wife, she was now expected to host visitors to the campus and assumed a maternal role with students. She served on the fifteen-member executive committee that ran the college when Washington was away. As Lady Principal, she was heavily involved in the construction of Dorothy Hall, which would house girls' industries. Like many of her peers, Washington was a pragmatic educator who promoted the professionalization of domestic service, the foremost occupation of black women during this era. Three years after their marriage, Booker T. Washington delivered his famous speech at the Atlanta Exposition, an event that catapulted Tuskegee Institute and the Washingtons into the national spotlight. This same year marked Margaret Washington's entry into the burgeoning black women's club movement, where she would make her life's greatest contributions.Tuskegee Woman's ClubIn 1895 Margaret Washington founded the Tuskegee Woman's Club, an association of female faculty and the wives of male faculty at Tuskegee Institute that became a model for the national club movement. Washington served as the club's president until her death in 1925. Under her leadership, the group organized social events, held literary discussions, hosted guest speakers, and reached out to the local community. They established a settlement on the nearby Russell plantation, home to many former convicts, and organized a Town Night School, which provided academic and industrial classes for local residents. Especially successful were mothers' meetings held in town on Saturdays, where women from the community acquired practical tips on childrearing, home economics, health, and hygiene. Through their outreach work, the women of Tuskegee promoted middle-class values, such as cleanliness, self-sufficiency, and homeownership. The major limitation of the Tuskegee Woman's Club was its exclusive membership and, at times, elitist attitude toward those they aimed to “uplift.”Margaret Murray Washington's marriage to the country's leading black educator, her success as president of the Tuskegee Woman's Club, and her own credentials as a graduate of Fisk University made her an obvious candidate for leadership in the national black women's club movement. The nationwide effort to organize African American women was triggered by Ida B. Wells-Barnett's late-nineteenth-century antilynching campaign. Wells-Barnett was a journalist from Memphis, Tennessee, whose provocative editorials on lynching resulted in her banishment from the South. Eventually she embarked on an antilynching speaking tour in Europe and was subsequently attacked by James Jacks, president of the Missouri Press Association, who wrote a scathing letter disparaging not only Wells-Barnett, but all African American women. His accusation that black women were “devoid of morality” and “natural thieves and liars” led Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, a club woman from Massachusetts, to call the first National Conference of Colored Women, held in Boston from 29 July to 31 July 1895.Margaret Washington presided at the conference and was nominated as president of the resulting National Federation of Afro-American Women. The following year, this organization merged with the Washington, DC–based Colored Women's League to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). The NACW united hundreds of black women's clubs and became the most powerful organization of African American women in the early twentieth century. Washington was chairman of the executive board and vice president before serving two terms as president from 1912 to 1916. One of her most significant contributions to the national association was her creation of a small newsletter that became the group's official publication in 1897. Washington continued to edit National Notes until she asked to be relieved in 1922.Clubs affiliated with the NACW soon formed state and regional federations to streamline their work. In 1898 Washington was the principal organizer and first president of the Alabama State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. Alabama club women focused on juvenile delinquents, who were then being housed with adult prisoners because no special accommodations existed for youth. The federation created facilities at Mt. Meigs for male and female teenage offenders who were eventually adopted by the state. In 1899 Washington called a meeting in Montgomery, Alabama, for club women throughout the South. Together they formed the Southern Federation of Colored Women, and Washington was again thrust into a leadership role. This regional collective concentrated on establishing kindergartens for black children in the South.Booker T. Washington's death in 1915 was a major blow to his wife both personally and professionally, yet Margaret Washington persevered. Like her husband, she saw potential in collaborating with whites and was a leading advocate of interracial cooperation. In 1920 a small group of prominent black club women met in Washington's home with two white representatives from the South-ern Methodist Women's Committee. African American women used this opportunity to articulate their frustration with dilapidated schools, substandard public facilities, and the continued disfranchisement of black citizens, and their strong opposition to lynching. Washington's moderate remarks and conciliatory manner angered some of her colleagues. Although white southern women consequently formed an organization to promote interracial collaboration, their efforts remained hampered by their conservative approach and avoidance of issues they deemed too controversial.International Council of Woman of the Darker RacesThe last of Washington's important contributions to the club movement was her call that their work expand into the global realm. This occurred after World War I, although black women's international tradition dates back to the antebellum period, when individuals such as Ellen Craft and Sarah Parker Remond traveled abroad and condemned American slavery. By the turn of the century, the NACW joined the predominantly white International Council of Women, the first multipurpose transnational women's organization. In 1899 Margaret and Booker T. Washington sat in on the council's International Congress of Women while visiting London. When the United States entered World War I, black club women eagerly supported the nation by purchasing war bonds, collecting goods for the troops, and volunteering as nurses. The period after the war was marked by heightened racial consciousness and by opposition to western imperialism. W.E.B. Du Bois, a founding member of the NAACP, organized Pan-African Congresses in 1919 and 1921 that a few club women attended. These factors strengthened black women's resolve to organize on the international level, and in 1922 leading club women formed the International Council of Women of the Darker Races (ICWDR), with Washington as president.It was Margaret Washington who initiated the idea of an international council, which she envisioned as a conduit to bring women of color around the world into closer contact. The new group's undertakings included fact-finding missions in Haiti and Cuba, support for a school for girls in Sierra Leone, and the promotion of African American history and literature in public schools. Washington wrote to Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, requesting his assistance with their educational program. One of Washington's most successful initiatives as president of the ICWDR was her suggestion that members form study groups in their local community to learn about women of color throughout the globe. She described in a letter to members how a group of women at Tuskegee recently examined “every phase of African life” and were beginning to study Japan.Washington's personal correspondence indicates that the ICWDR was one of her proudest achievements, but her death in 1925 occurred before she could capitalize on the organization's potential. After her death, subsequent leaders of the ICWDR like Addie Hunton and Addie Dickerson increased the organization's political orientation. A major shortcoming of the ICWDR was its failure to attract a substantial number of members from abroad. The council functioned until World War II, when an aged membership was no longer able to carry on its mission.When Margaret Murray Washington passed away on 4 June 1925, hundreds of telegrams flooded Tuskegee Institute expressing condolences, including one from the president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge. Her simple funeral aptly included the hymn “How Firm a Foundation,” for Washington was a central figure in the black women's club movement and indispensable in the building of Tuskegee. Although one can look back and criticize her cautious methods, it must be remembered that life for African Americans in rural Alabama at the turn of the century was marred by the constant threat of racist violence. Agitators like Ida B. Wells-Barnett seldom remained in the South and survived. Margaret Murray Washington, a lifelong resident of the Deep South, was buried on Tuskegee's campus beside her husband.
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