On this day in 1861, Josephine Turpin Washington was born in Goochland County, Virginia. Her parents were the children of former slaves, and her father was a descendant of Thomas Jefferson (Washington’s great-grandmother was the former president’s paternal aunt). She was born free. By July 1861, the Civil War would have engulfed Virginia—5,000 soldiers had just died roughly a week before her birth in the Union’s first major defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run, north of Goochland County. Confederate president Jefferson Davis would eventually declare all black people slaves in response to the Emancipation Proclamation. But the Turpin family weathered the war, and eventually moved to the former Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia. There, Josephine and her brothers and sisters were educated at the Richland Institute, later the Richland Theological Seminary, a school founded for African Americans in 1865 by Baptist missionaries.
Washington grew up during a remarkable time for African Americans in the South, a time of social change and political optimism for many. The Reconstruction Era brought with it broad reforms to benefit black Americans, including citizenship and voting rights (for men), and new state constitutions that offered public education, political protection, land rights, religious freedom, and economic opportunity. Despite the white backlash and terrorism following the end of Reconstruction, Washington pushed on. She attended Howard University and graduated in 1886, just twenty years after the institution’s founding. She spent one of her summers at college clerking for Frederick Douglass, then a bureaucrat in Washington, D.C. She taught math at Howard for a few years before she married and moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and she went on to teach at other historically black colleges, including Selma University, Tuskegee Institute, and later Wilberforce University.
But it was in the field of journalism where Washington became a powerful voice for change. Black women in the late 19th century were at the cross-section of a series of movements: women’s suffrage, women’s rights, anti-lynching, temperance, black civil rights, and labor rights. A unique brand of feminist rhetoric emerged that took advantage of the newspapers, women’s clubs, pulpits, and sewing circles that would hear and consider black female voices. Washington was one of those voices. She began her journalism career writing as a teenager for local black newspapers in Virginia and went on to work with feminist luminaries of the era, like Hallie Q. Brown. She contributed to some of the most influential black newspapers of her time and helped shape contemporary ideas of black womanhood, spirituality, child welfare, education, and the political future of women in America.
Washington lived through dangerous times for black men and women in the United States, and she was courageous for being so bold. Her activism predates the modern civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter, but her ideas live on. It is important to remember the strong black women who spoke loudly when black women today are still being victimized for doing so. In celebrating Josephine Turpin Washington, we hope to draw attention to the legacy of black women in America and awareness of the continuing struggle for equality.
by Meeghan Kane