As a writer and educator, Josephine Washington was committed to freeing America from what she described as the "monster of prejudice whose voracious appetite is appeased only when individuals are reduced to abject servitude and are content to remain hewers of wood and drawers of water." Washington was concerned with social issues from an early age, and in her teaching and many writings she was a powerful advocate of women's rights and racial justice.
Born on July 31, 1861, in Goochland County, Virginia, Washington was the daughter of Augustus and Maria Turpin. Her education began at home and continued through normal and high schools to the Richmond Institute, which later became the Richmond Theological Seminary. She entered Howard University's college department and graduated in 1886. While at the university, Washington spent her summer vacations working as a copyist for Frederick Douglass, during his tenure as recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia. Following her marriage to Dr. Samuel H. H. Washington, she moved to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1888. She later taught at Richmond Theological Seminary, Howard University, and Selma University, Alabama. Her commitment to education led Washington to play an important role in the development of Selma University, an educational institution for teachers and ministers alike.
Washington's literary efforts began as a teenager. Her first story, "A Talk about Church Fairs," in which she criticized the sale of wine at church fund-raisers, was published in the Virginia Starto a favorable reactionwhen she was only sixteen years old. While her writing, and perhaps especially her poetry, has largely been neglected, Washington addressed herself to many of the important issues of her day. Essays such as "Higher Education for Women," published in the People's Advocate, and her introduction to Lawson A. Scrugg's Women of Distinction (1893) display her concern with an array of issues affecting black people, including job opportunities, education, motherhood, and relations between women and men. In the latter essay she powerfully defends the "progressive woman" who seeks to successfully participate in both professional and domestic spheres. While chairperson of the Executive Board of the Alabama State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, Washington also wrote their Federation Hymn, "Mother Alabama." Her work appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Freeman, the New York Globe, the AME Review, the Christian Recorder, the Virginia Star, the Colored American Magazine, and the People's Advocate.
Writing in 1904 for the Colored American Magazine on the sixth annual meeting of the State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, held in Mobile, Alabama, Washington reported not only on the delegate's focus on black womanhood, standards of morality, and the setting up of a youth reformatory but also on the pervasive effects of segregation and racial prejudice within the city itself. With an eye to discrimination on all levels of society, Washington noted, for instance, the playgrounds that were set aside for the exclusive use of white children, while black children "look on longingly, but dare not touch the sacred structure."
While as yet little is known about the later years of her life, and the details of her death in 1949, Washington's numerous writings remain as testimony to her religious faith, her belief in the equality of women, and her strong commitment to ending racial discrimination.
Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):
MacFarlane, Fenella. "Washington, Josephine." In Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Black Women in America: The Early Years, 16171899, Encyclopedia of Black Women in America. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1997. African-American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?
ItemID=WE01&iPin=AFEBW0938&SingleRecord=True (accessed May 29, 2015).
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