Portia Marshall Washington Pittman (June 6, 1883 – February 26, 1978), the daughter of Tuskegee Institute’s founder Booker T. Washington, was a pianist, music teacher, and choral director. Born in Tuskegee, Alabama, she was an accomplished pianist by the time she was ten. After attending boarding schools in New England, she studied music at Wellesley College, Tuskegee Institute, and Bradford Academy, where she became the first Black graduate in 1905. (1)
Her mother, Fanny Norton Smith, was Booker Washington’s first wife. A graduate of Hampton Institute, and a “childhood sweetheart” of the famous leader, she was born in Malden, West Virginia. Portia, born on the Tuskegee campus, was their only child. Fannie died in 1889.
Although her privileged background gained her access to schools that were not available to other Black students, her experiences at those schools were shaped by the prevalent racism of the time, which, among other things, prevented her from living with other students. After graduating from Bradford she moved to Berlin, Germany to continue her piano studies, but she returned to Tuskegee in 1907 to marry architect William Sidney Pittman.
The Pittmans moved to Washington, DC, where their four children were born. After her husband’s business began to fail, the family moved to Dallas, Texas. There Portia Pittman established herself, directing school and church choirs, giving private music lessons, teaching in the public school system, and serving as chair of the education department of the Texas Association of Negro Musicians. Other accomplishments of Ms. Pittman are as follows:
In March 1927 the National Education Association held its annual convention in Dallas. Almost 7,500 teachers attended. A 600-voice choir from Booker T. Washington High School, under Portia’s direction, sang a medley of popular and spiritual songs. It was the first time in history that a black high school group had appeared on the NEA program. Tremendous applause and cries of “encore” rose after the performance, and a spontaneous sing-along erupted as audience and choir together sang spirituals and folk songs. NEA president Randall J. Condon, a Los Angeles principal, judged the performance a “complete success.” Later that summer Portia traveled to Columbia University in order to acquire academic credentials to allow her to continue teaching in the Dallas public schools.” (2)
She now dedicated herself to a campaign to have her father’s Virginia birthplace preserved as a national monument. Before the success of that effort in May 1949, her efforts to memorialize her father bore fruit on May 23, 1946, when a bust of her father was installed in the Hall of Fame in New York, and also on August 7, 1946, when President Harry Truman signed a bill “authorizing the minting of five million Booker T. Washington commemorative fifty-cent coins.” Portia also oversaw the establishment of the Booker T. Washington Foundation to provide academic scholarships for black students. Though she had resolved to leave Texas behind her, she traveled to Dallas one last time to attend the funeral of her former husband, who died on February 19, 1958. (3)
In the later years of her life, Ms. Washington Pittman suffered from health and financial problems. Even still, she remained active in the civil rights of Black Americans, she was happy of the renewed interest in Black history during the 1960s, and that her father’s legacy as one of America’s great leaders would be remembered.
On February 26, 1978, Ms. Portia Marshall Washington Pittman died, in Washington, DC.
1. Black Women in America, by Darlene Clark, et. al., Oxford University Press, 2005.