Portia Washington Pittman, musician and teacher, was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, on June 6, 1883, the only daughter of Booker T. and Fanny (Smith) Washington. Her father was the founder of Tuskegee Institute. Upon her mother's death in 1884, Portia's care came from nursemaids and two stepmothers. Already a fairly accomplished pianist by the age of ten, she entertained her family by playing spirituals and simple classical pieces. Her father arranged for her to attend New England's finest boarding schools, including Framingham State Normal School in Massachusetts in 1895. After grammar school she returned home to take classes at Tuskegee Institute, and in 1901 she attended Wellesley College in Massachusetts. In New England she continued her piano studies and received a degree from the Bradford Academy (now Bradford Junior College) in 1905, the first African American to obtain a degree from that institution.
Upon graduation Portia traveled to Berlin to study under Martin Krause, master pianist and former student of Franz Liszt. Complicating her time in Europe, however, were the persistent attentions of William Sidney Pittman, a Tuskegee student and teacher she had met in 1900. Now, five years later, Pittman determined to marry Portia and persuaded her through a passionate correspondence. Portia sacrificed her piano studies, returned to the United States, and married Sidney Pittman on Halloween, 1907, in the chapel of Tuskegee Institute.
Pittman decided that he and Portia should begin afresh in Washington, D.C. There he set up an architectural practice and built their home in Fairmont Heights, Maryland. Between 1908 and 1912 Portia gave birth to her three children. Nevertheless she made her concert debut in a joint recital with Clarence Cameron White in May 1908 in Washington, and periodically toured on a concert circuit. Despite family happiness, money problems plagued the Pittmans. Sidney's architectural contracts dried up, and Portia began giving private piano lessons in order to maintain the family income.
Pittman's vanity was wounded by his wife's having to work as well as by her family's fame. He moved the family in 1913 to Dallas, where he thought Booker T. Washington's shadow would be less oppressive. They settled on Juliette Street. After Pittman's contracts again dropped off, partly because Dallas Blacks who could afford his services preferred to hire white architects, financial difficulties again plagued Portia's life. On November 14, 1915, her father died. A fire in 1918 destroyed the Pittmans' second Dallas home on Germania Street, and they moved to Liberty Street. Improvement in the family's fortunes began at this time, however, and continued for nearly ten years. Pittman became the president of the Brotherhood of Negro Building Mechanics of Texas, and Portia began teaching music at Booker T. Washington High School in 1925. She also chaired the education department of the Texas Association of Negro Musicians.
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.
In 1928 a violent quarrel between Pittman and his daughter, Fannie, culminated in his striking the girl. Portia packed, took Fannie, and left Pittman and Texas. She began teaching at Tuskegee that same year. Her classes included piano, public school music, glee club, and choir. Tuskegee had changed, however, since her father s death. The new administration demanded that all faculty members have academic degrees in order to teach. Lacking such credentials, Portia was removed from the faculty by 1939, but opened her own private music studio in her home in order to support herself. In 1944, at age sixty-one, she retired. 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.
Although Portia suffered financial and health problems during the last years of her life, she remained interested in the ongoing effort of African Americans to acquire their civil rights. She was heartened by the heightened interest in Black history during the 1960s and the assurance that her father would be remembered as a great African-American leader. She died on February 26, 1978, in Washington, D.C.