Denzel Washington was born in Mount Vernon, near New York City, on December 28, 1954. His mother, Lennis "Lynne", was a beauty parlor-owner and operator born in Georgia and partly raised in Harlem. His father, Reverend Denzel H. Washington, Sr., a native of Buckingham County, Virginia, served as an ordained Pentecostal minister, and also worked for the Water Department and a local department store, S. Klein.
Washington attended grammar school at Pennington-Grimes Elementary School in Mount Vernon until 1968. When he was 14, his parents' marriage fell apart and his mother sent him to a private preparatory school, Oakland Military Academy, in New Windsor, New York. "That decision changed my life," Washington later said, "because I wouldn’t have survived in the direction I was going. The guys I was hanging out with at the time, my running buddies, have now done maybe 40 years combined in the penitentiary. They were nice guys, but the streets got them." After Oakland, Washington next attended Mainland High School, a public high school in Daytona Beach, Florida, from 1970–71. Washington was interested in attending Texas Tech University: "I grew up in the Boys Club in Mount Vernon, and we were the Red Raiders. So when I was in high school, I wanted to go to Texas Tech in Lubbock just because they were called the Red Raiders and their uniforms looked like ours." Washington earned a B.A. in Drama and Journalism from Fordham University in 1977. At Fordham he played collegiate basketball as a freshman guard under coach P. J. Carlesimo. After a period of indecision on which major to study and dropping out of school for a semester, Washington worked as a counselor at an overnight summer camp, Camp Sloane YMCA in Lakeville, Connecticut. He participated in a staff talent show for the campers and a colleague suggested he try acting.