Margaret Murray Washington, First Lady of Tuskegee

Educator, Advocated More Conservative Approach to Racial Equality

Margaret Murray Washington
Margaret Murray Washington, about 1901. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Margaret Murray Washington was an educator, administrator, reformer, and clubwoman who married Booker T. Washington and worked closely with him at Tuskegee and on educational projects. She was very well known in her own time, she was somewhat forgotten in later treatments of Black history, perhaps because of her association with a more conservative approach to winning racial equality.

Early Years

Margaret Murray Washington was born in Macon, Mississippi on March 8 as Margaret James Murray. According to the 1870 census, she was born in 1861; her tombstone gives 1865 as her birth year. Her mother, Lucy Murray, was a formerly enslaved washerwoman and had between four and nine children (sources, even those approved by Margaret Murray Washington in her lifetime, have different numbers). Margaret stated later in life that her father, an Irishman whose name is not known, died when she was seven years old. Margaret and her older sister and next younger brother are listed in that 1870 census as “mulatto” and the youngest child, a boy then four, as Black.  

Also according to later stories by Margaret, after her father’s death, she moved in with a brother and sister named Sanders, Quakers, who served as adoptive or foster parents to her. She still was close to her mother and siblings; she is listed in the 1880 census as living at home with her mother, along with her older sister and, now, two younger sisters. Later, she said that she had nine siblings and that only the youngest, born about 1871, had children.


The Sanders guided Margaret towards a career in teaching. She, like many women of the time, began teaching in local schools without any formal training; after one year, in 1880, she decided to pursue such formal training anyway at Fisk Preparatory School in Nashville, Tennessee. If the census record is correct, she would have been 19 years old when she started studying to be a teacher (she may have understated her age believing that the school preferred younger students). She worked half time and took the training half time, graduating with honors in 1889. W.E.B. Du Bois was a classmate and became a lifelong friend.


Her performance at Fisk was enough to win her a job offer at a Texas college, but she took a teaching position at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama instead. By the next year, 1890, she had become the "Lady Principal" at the school responsible for female students" She succeeded Anna Thankful Ballantine, who had been involved in hiring her. A predecessor in that job was Olivia Davidson Washington, second wife of Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee’s famous founder, who died in May of 1889, and was still held in high respect at the school.

Booker T. Washington

Within the year, the widowed Booker T. Washington, who had met Margaret Murray at her Fisk senior dinner, began courting her. She was reluctant to marry him when he asked her to do so. She did not get along with one of his brothers with whom he was especially close and with that brother’s wife who had been caring for Booker T. Washington’s children after he was widowed. Washington’s daughter, Portia, was outright hostile towards anyone taking her mother’s place. With marriage, she would become also the stepmother of his three still-young children. Eventually, she decided to accept his proposal, and they were married on October 10, 1892.

Mrs. Washington’s Role

At Tuskegee, Margaret Murray Washington not only served as Lady Principal, with charge over the female students—most of whom would become teachers—and faculty, she also founded the Women’s Industries Division and herself taught domestic arts. As Lady Principal, she was part of the school’s executive board. She also served as acting head of the school during her husband’s frequent travels, especially after his fame spread after a speech at the Atlanta Exposition in 1895. His fundraising and other activities kept him away from the school as much as six months out of the year.

Women’s Organizations

She supported the Tuskegee agenda, summarized in the motto “Lifting as We Climb,” of responsibility to work to improve not only one’s self but the whole race. This commitment she also lived out in her involvement in Black women’s organizations, and in frequent speaking engagements. Invited by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, she helped form the National Federation of Afro-American Women in 1895, which merged the next year under her presidency with the Colored Women’s League, to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). “Lifting as We Climb” became the motto of the NACW.

There, editing and publishing the journal for the organization, as well as serving as secretary of the executive board, she represented the conservative wing of the organization, focused on a more evolutionary change of Black Americans to prepare for equality. She was opposed by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who favored a more activist stance, challenging racism more directly and with visible protest. This reflected a division between the more cautious approach of her husband, Booker T. Washington, and the more radical position of W.E.B. Du Bois. Margaret Murray Washington was president of the NACW for four years, beginning in 1912, as the organization increasingly moved towards the more political orientation of Wells-Barnett.

Other Activism

One of her other activities was organizing regular Saturday mother’s meetings at Tuskegee. Women of the town would come for socializing and an address, often by Mrs. Washington. The children who came with the mothers had their own activities in another room, so their mothers could focus on their meeting. By 1904, the group grew to about 300 women.

She often accompanied her husband on speaking trips, as the children grew old enough to be left in the care of others. Her task was often to address the wives of the men who attended her husband’s talks. In 1899, she accompanied her husband on a European trip. In 1904, Margaret Murray Washington’s niece and nephew came to live with the Washingtons at Tuskegee. The nephew, Thomas J. Murray, worked at the bank associated with Tuskegee. The niece, much younger, took the name of Washington.

Widowhood Years and Death

In 1915, Booker T. Washington fell ill and his wife accompanied him back to Tuskegee where he died. He was buried next to his second wife on the campus at Tuskegee. Margaret Murray Washington remained at Tuskegee, supporting the school and also continuing outside activities. She denounced Black Americans of the South who moved North during the Great Migration. She was president from 1919 until 1925 of the Alabama Association of Women’s Clubs. She became involved in work to address issues of racism for women and children globally, founding and heading the International Council of Women of the Darker Races in 1921. The organization, which was to promote “a larger appreciation of their history and accomplishment” in order to have “a greater degree of race pride for their own achievements and touch a greater themselves,” did not survive very long after Murray’s death.

Still active at Tuskegee up until her death on June 4, 1925, Margaret Murray Washington was long considered the “first lady of Tuskegee.” She was buried next to her husband, as was his second wife.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Margaret Murray Washington, First Lady of Tuskegee." ThoughtCo, Nov. 24, 2020, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, November 24). Margaret Murray Washington, First Lady of Tuskegee. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Margaret Murray Washington, First Lady of Tuskegee." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).

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