Mary Jane Patterson was born September 12, 1840. She was the oldest of seven to ten children (different sources state different figures) born to Henry Irving Patterson and Emeline Eliza Patterson. After Mary was born, her father gained his freedom and moved the family north to Oberlin, Ohio.
In Oberlin, the Pattersons were able to prosper. The town of Oberlin served as a safe haven for freed and fugitive slaves. It also housed a racially-integrated, co-ed college. Patterson’s father worked as a brick mason. The family also boarded Black college students which served as another source of income.
Once Patterson graduated high school, she began pursuing her B.A. degree. She made history in 1862 when she graduated from college. She is the first Black woman in America to earn her B.A. From there, she took her education and remained in the education system. She pursued a career as a teacher.
Patterson taught in Chillicothe, Ohio for a short period after graduating. By 1864, she had applied for a teaching position in Norfolk, Virginia at an all-Black school. The principal of Oberlin College wrote a letter of recommendation for her employment with the school. In the letter, Mary was described as, “a…quadroon,…superior scholar,…good singer,…and genteel lady.”
Form 1869 to 1871, Patterson taught at the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (now Dunbar High School) in Washington, D.C. In 1871, she became the school’s first Black principal. The following year, she was demoted to the assistant principal when Richard Theodore Greener was hired as the principal.
While working for the Preparatory High School, Patterson increased the student body size from 50 to 172. She also initiated commencement ceremonies and implemented a teacher-training department. She established high intellectual standards for the students who attended.
In addition to paving the way for Black women in education, Patterson was an active member of the Black community. She belonged to the Colored Women’s League and she co-operated the Home for the Aged and Infirm Colored People. She also worked at the Preparatory High School until she died. Mary Jane Patterson died September 24, 1894. She was 54 years old.
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