Out of the Shadow of Tuskegee: Margaret Murray Washington, Social Activism, and Race Vindication

Article excerpt

When Margaret James Murray Washington died on June 4, 1925, condolences flooded Tuskegee Institute from across the nation, including the President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge. In statements from friends, colleagues, former students, and admirers, all agreed that a giant in compassion, social service, education, reform, and race work had fallen. Eulogies spoke of her commitment to Tuskegee Institute, to her companion in life and work Booker T. Washington, to her leadership in club work among African-American women, and to her service as a woman who touched hundreds of lives with her spirit and grace.(1) Tuskegee's Principal Robert Moton remembered her pride in the "Tuskegee Spirit," that satisfaction in seeing the college as an essential conduit in interracial cooperation in the South. "She was devoted to this school and was happiest when Tuskegee Institute was serving in the largest way to this country, this race and all races . . . Mrs. Washington realized that schools and property and education [,] all amounted to very little if men and women and races and nations could not live and work together. . . . What a marvelous example she has set for womanhood, not only of the black race, but of all races and of all nations."(2)

Margaret James Murray (Maggie) was born on March 9, 1865 in Macon, Mississippi.(3) The third of five children, Maggie's mother supported the family as a washerwoman. Around the age of seven, Maggie was sent to live with Quaker siblings, the Sanders, who were teachers in the community. Maggie entered Fisk University's preparatory class in 1881, as a half-time student. She completed Fisk after eight years, working in faculty members' homes and teaching during the summers in order to cover college expenses.(4) Two Fisk contemporaries were remembered by Maggie over the years: W.E.B. Du Bois, a classmate and fellow member of the college's debate team, and well-known clergyman Rev. Sterling Brown Sr., who recognized Murray's ability and became her mentor. Years later, when Brown was invited to visit Tuskegee to stay at "The Oaks," Maggie asked Emmett Scott, her husband's secretary, to provide him with all the amenities. Scott accommodated Maggie's old friend in grand fashion.(5)

In 1889 Booker T. Washington delivered Maggie's commencement address. Cornering Washington at a senior luncheon, Murray boldly asked for a job. Though she had accepted a teaching position at Prairie View College in Texas, Murray preferred to teach at Tuskegee. Impressed with her effervescence and arrogance, Booker Washington decided to hire her.

Employed as Lady Principal and Director of the Department of Domestic Service (later Department of Girls Industries), Murray's responsibilities included providing direct supervision for female students; and oversight of her division's curriculum, which entailed establishing lower and post graduate divisions in sewing, laundering, basketry, millinery, soap-making, table-setting, cooking, and broom-making. Tuskegee Institute coeds saw Margaret Murray as a nurturing mother figure, a mentor, and a friend. Emergencies were usually handled by her and hence her advice and help were often solicited.

The demands of Murray's job were many. In addition to managing a poorly-funded budget, she was held accountable for the behavior and decorum of her faculty and students. Students depended on Murray's letters of support to secure jobs, and in some cases they needed her intervention to receive special permission from the administration to attend to family or personal affairs. A large portion of her time was spent writing and answering memoranda arguing for increased monetary support of the department, particularly the purchase of appropriate equipment, allocation of additional space, and the purchase of much needed supplies. Fairness and equity for teachers were major concerns for Murray. In one instance, concern about losing good faculty because of the Institute's tardiness in granting significant raises, led Murray to petition Principal Washington strongly to reconsider the issue of teacher salaries. …