Born in Virginia in 1854, Olivia A. Davidson, the daughter of an ex-slave and freeborn mother, was the seventh of ten children. The family moved from Virginia to southern Ohio in 1857, then moved to the northern part of the state in Albany and Athens after her father’s death. The later move had a significant influence on her development as she attended the Enterprise Academy, which was owned, operated, and controlled by African American educators. Also, the Albany area was a focal point for anti-slavery sentiment, the site for three routes of the Underground Railroad, and it provided Davidson with the opportunity to interact with many Oberlin College graduates and faculty as well as African American activists.
Davidson began teaching at the age of sixteen in Ohio. At the age of 18 she moved to Mississippi to teach freed people and their children. In 1886, she delivered a speech to the Alabama State Teacher Association on the subject “How Shall We Make the Women of Our Race Stronger?” where she asserted that African American girls were the “hope of the race” and that the road to the collective improvement of African Americans dependent on the development of its daughters. After two years in Mississippi and four years of teaching in the Memphis Public School system she enrolled at Hampton Normal A & I in Virginia in the fall of 1878. In May of 1879, she gave the commencement address for her class. There she met Booker T. Washington (class of 1875), who was the postgraduate speaker at the ceremony.
Davidson became Washington’s second wife in August of 1886; she was the stepmother to his daughter Portia, and had two sons with Washington, Booker, Jr. and Ernest. At Tuskegee, in addition to serving as a confidant, wife, and mother, she was a teacher, curriculum specialist, principal, fund-raiser, and builder. She died May 9, 1889.